Welcoming Back the New Shepard
For the first time in more than a year Jeff Bezos' private spaceflight company, Blue Origins, has launched its New Shepard tourist rocket. The launch took place around noon on December 12th from the Blue Origins facility in West Texas. The company did not make an announcement that the launch was scheduled, only communicating with the media nearly eleven hours after the rocket successfully landed back on Earth. This is a departure from the practices of Blue Origins' competitor SpaceX — the launches of which are often buzzed about before they happen and met with a great deal of media attention.
The launch was simply a test of the updated New Shepard passenger-carrying rocket. Atop the rocket sits a crew capsule (now complete with windows ) which will ferry passengers on the 11-minute journey to the very threshold of space. During the more than 10-minute launch, New Shepard was able to reach heights of 99 km above sea level and reached a maximum ascent velocity of Mach 2.94.
This test ride didn't carry human passenagers, though: the capsule was occupied by Mannequin Skywalker, a test dummy, as well as twelve commercial, research, and educational payloads.
An earlier version of the New Shepard rocket successfully launched and landed five times, and the original passenger capsule made six journeys before it was retired. The focus on reusability is one that is shared by many in the private spaceflight industry. Once fully operational, Blue Origins plans to reuse their systems up to dozens of times, allowing for a much greater control of costs — which they hope will make spaceflight more accessible.
SpaceX's focus has thus far been more geared toward the commercial side of space travel, while Blue Origin seems primarily interested in the space tourism angle — at least for now. Future plans involving another rocket model the company is working on, the New Glenn, would allow Blue Origin to deliver cargo and, perhaps, additional passengers into orbit.
While they have their differences, SpaceX and Blue Origins do share a passion for the democratization of space though reusable technology. It will be interesting to see how their paths toward that goal ultimately diverge, and what else the strides they make in terms of techology could improve upon or innovate.