Blue Origin's First Crewed Suborbital Flight

~4 min
Blue Origin's First Crewed Suborbital Flight

What is Blue Origin's New Shepard?

New Shepard is a 60-foot-tall reusable suborbital launch vehicle developed to carry astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line — an imaginary boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space. The principal parts constituting New Shepard are a pressurized crew capsule with room for six astronauts and a booster rocket (also called a propulsion module), both of which are reusable.

New Shepard conducts its flights autonomously: there are no pilots onboard. Assuming that the passengers are properly trained on what to do in case of emergency, that's no riskier than flying a rocket requiring a pilot. The space tourism vehicle supports an emergency system that can separate the passenger capsule from a failing rocket.

New Shepard is developed by Blue Origin, an aerospace manufacturer and suborbital spaceflight services company owned by businessman Jeff Bezos, as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism. The space vehicle was named after astronaut Alan Shepard, the second man and the first American in space.

Flight on July 20

Since 2015, New Shepard has successfully flown 15 test flights, but never with passengers onboard. Jeff Bezos’s space company scheduled its first mission flying humans for July 20.

The whole trip will last only 11 minutes. Shortly after liftoff, the New Shepard rocket will separate from the capsule and fall back to the Earth to land vertically on a concrete pad. As the crewed capsule reaches an altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles), passengers will feel weightless. They will have three minutes in zero gravity to unbuckle and float around the cabin, enjoying the Earth's view through the capsule's massive windows. Having completed the journey to space, the capsule will land softly using a set of parachutes in the West Texas desert, where a recovery crew will be waiting for it.

July 20 is remarkable as it also marks another important date in the history of space flights. On this day in 1969, the first manned mission — NASA's Apollo 11 — landed on the Moon, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to set foot on another celestial body.

Who will fly to space on New Shepard’s first human flight?

  • The crew of the first manned New Shepard flight includes four space tourists. Two of them will be the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark. "Ever since I was five years old, I've dreamed of traveling to space. On July 20, I will take that journey with my brother. The greatest adventure, with my best friend," Bezos wrote on Instagram on June 7.

  • One seat on this flight was offered to the winning bidder of Blue Origin's auction. The month-long auction ended on June 12 with a closing price of $28 million. However, due to the scheduling conflicts, the winning bidder, who remains anonymous, won't join the Bezos brothers in the flight. On July 15, Blue Origin announced 18-year-old Oliver Daemen as the first paying customer to take a trip to the edge of space on New Shepard's first human flight.

  • On July 1, Jeff Bezos revealed the fourth passenger aboard New Shepard: Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviator, became an honored guest on this trip to space. Funk started her career as a pilot instructor in Oklahoma City. In 1961, she joined Mercury 13 — a group of thirteen women pilots qualified to be astronaut candidates who had never gone into space because of their gender. "No one has waited longer," Bezos stated on Instagram.

Before the flight, the space tourists will undergo three days of training: they will work in a mockup of the New Shepard capsule, learning emergency protocols and procedures for getting in and out of the spacecraft.

Billionaires' space race heats up: Richard Branson's flight

Along with Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson take part in the race to get to space. However, the billionaires compete in different sectors of space tourism. Musk's SpaceX is especially interested in orbital tourism — launching private passengers on low-Earth orbit. The company plans to launch Inspiration4, the world's first all-civilian space mission, to the Earth's orbit in September 2021. Meanwhile, Bezos' Blue Origin rivals Branson's Virgin Galactic in suborbital tourism — arranging short flights to the edge of space.

At the moment, Branson is ahead of his rival. Aiming to beat Bezos to space, the Virgin Galactic founder made a suborbital flight as a passenger of the six-passenger, two-pilot suborbital rocket-powered crewed space plane VSS Unity on July 11. This was the first flight to carry a full crew of two pilots and four mission specialists, including Branson who tested out the private civilian astronaut experience. Interestingly enough, his fellow billionaire Elon Musk reportedly bought a ticket for one of the future flights of Virgin Galactic. Branson, in turn, said that he could fly into space on SpaceX's Crew Dragon one day.

However, Branson didn't fly as high as Bezos will: while VSS Unity reached an altitude of 86 kilometers (53 miles), New Shepard will fly above 100 kilometers (62 miles). Moreover, some might even claim that Branson was not actually in space! The thing is that there is a dispute in the space community about the boundary between the Earth's atmosphere and the cosmos. According to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), the international governing body for aeronautic and astronautic records, the Kármán line is 100 kilometers (62 miles) above mean sea level. However, such organizations as NASA and the US Air Force don't recognize this definition: they define the boundary as 80 kilometers (50 miles) above sea level.

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