New Shepard flies again, bringing suborbital space tourism closer

Blue Origin flew its New Shepard system for the eighth time on Sunday, launching from West Texas at about noon local time. During the 10-minute flight, the capsule reached a record height of 107 kilometers, and both the booster and capsule landed safely.

Although it has yet to make a formal announcement, the company seems to be getting closer to flying people on the suborbital tourism launch system—and perhaps beginning ticket sales.

Not only was this the second flight of a new version of the capsule with large windows, but the webcast’s host, Ariane Cornell, repeatedly discussed the customer experience. Cornell, who oversees business development for Blue Origin, spoke about how customers will fly into West Texas on a Friday (complete with panoramic views of the region), spend a day of “fun” flight training on Saturday, and then the launch into space itself on Sunday.

Her repeated emphasis on the customer experience, rather than the technical performance of the vehicle often discussed in previous webcasts, may be the harbinger of a marketing campaign built around ticket sales.

No price, yet

Blue Origin has not released a price for the spaceflight experience, which will include about four minutes of low-gravity and weightlessness during which passengers will be released from their couches, and can float around the New Shepard spacecraft.

In March, 2016, Jeff Bezos said the price would be competitive with other suborbital space flights. Today, the only near-term competitor with Blue Origin in this market is Virgin Galactic, which has yet to reach space, but sells tickets for $250,000.

Sunday’s flight was Blue Origin’s eighth overall launch of the New Shepard system, and the second time this particular spacecraft and booster have flown. They last flew in December. It is believed that this capsule, the third one built by the company, will undergo extensive testing before crew flights begin in the fourth vehicle.

Nominally, the company maintains that it will begin flights with “test passengers” by the end of 2018, with commercial service beginning next year. Already Blue Origin has begun flying commercial payloads—primarily microgravity experiments—on its capsule during the test flights. If Blue Origin is to meet its schedule for human flights, we can probably expect an increasing frequency of test flights this summer.

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