On November 23, 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket successfully flew to the edge of space, reaching the Karman line (100 km/329,839 ft) before a picture-perfect landing in West Texas. During the flight, the vehicle reached Mach 3.72, nearly 4x the speed of sound. This marks the first time that a re-usable vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle has reached space and returned to its launch site.
“Although the New Shepard is a sub-orbital vehicle rather than an orbital rocket, this is a significant milestone for space tourism.” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President. “The successful landing clears the way for a program of sub-orbital research flights over the next year or so, expected to lead to sub-orbital tourist flights.” With this success, Blue Origin becomes the company to beat in sub-orbital tourism, with rival XCOR yet to make a first flight, and Virgin Galactic recovering from the loss of SpaceShipTwo. Powered by the 110,000 pound thrust BE-3 liquid hydrogen/oxygen engine, the New Shepard consists of a two parts – a re-usable booster that returns to the launch site and a cargo/passenger capsule that lands separately via parachute. A future crew of up to six would experience 3x the force of gravity on takeoff and 5x the force of gravity during part of the descent.
NSS believes that space tourism, including sub-orbital tourism, can be a driving force toward lowering launch costs and increasing access to space. “Blue Origin’s successful landing of the New Shepard booster after reaching the edge of space represents a major step toward a fully re-usable sub-orbital vehicle,” said Bruce Pittman, NSS Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “We congratulate Jeff Bezos and the entire Blue Origin team for their hard work, dedication, and vaulting ambition.”
Blue Origin has a contract with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop the BE-4, a new methane/liquid oxygen engine for the planned ULA Vulcan launch vehicle. On September 15, 2015 Bezos announced plans to spend over $200 million annually in Florida to build a Blue Origin “big rocket” to be launched from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to orbit using the BE-4 in the first stage and the BE-3 in the second stage.
“The recent passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act by the House paves the way for the future success of companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR in the sub-orbital space tourism business,” said Mark Hopkins, Chair of the NSS Executive Committee. “NSS has been working diligently to create a favorable regulatory environment for space tourism, and we are delighted to see Blue Origin advancing toward lower cost space launches.”