Jeff Bezos’ Rocket Company Is ‘Very, Very Close’ to Launching Tourists Into Space

A drone shot of a Blue Origin New Shepard rocket and capsule blasting off from the company’s west Texas flight test facility for the program’s 14th test flight. Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin has secured a temporary flight restriction (TFR) from the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) to conduct a major test flight with its New Shepard spacecraft as soon as Wednesday.

The TFR restricts airspace movement in the skies above Blue Origin’s test facility in Van Horn, Texas from April 14 to April 17. While it doesn’t mention Blue Origin’s name, the agency published a “notice to airmen” Sunday “to provide a safe environment for rocket launch and recovery.”

Blue Shepard confirmed the upcoming test in a tweet late Sunday, saying “launch window for New Shepard NS-15 opens Wednesday, April 14.”

Livestream of the launch is scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. Wednesday on Blue Origin’s website.

New Shepard is a reusable booster-capsule system designed to carry research crew and payloads, as well as space tourists, to altitudes just above Earth’s atmosphere.

Blue Origin has been testing New Shepard since 2015 and flown various iterations of the spacecraft over a dozen times. Unlike Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is known for its move-fast-and-break-things style when it comes to testing new rockets, Bezos’ space venture is taking things slow.

Blue Origin achieved reusability with New Shepard in early 2016, but still hasn’t launched any piloted test flights. On January 14, the company launched its 14th sub-orbital flight with a fourth-generation New Shepard capsule called NS4. During the test, a New Shepard booster reached a maximum velocity of over 2,000 mph in about 2.5 minutes after liftoff and separated from the crew capsule mid-air. The capsule then soared to an altitude of 107 km (66 miles), well exceeding the standards of the lower boundary of space. Both the booster and the capsule successfully returned to Earth with a soft landing about 10 minutes later. 

The crew capsule of the fourth-generation New Shepard was outfitted with a variety of upgrades to accommodate future passengers, including environmental features such as acoustics and temperature regulation inside the capsule, crew display panels and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat.

“We’re getting very, very close to flying our first astronauts, so that’s why it’s critical that we test these systems,” Blue Origin’s director of astronauts and orbital sales Ariane Cornell said during the January 14 flight.

This week’s test is expected to be one of the final flights before Blue Origin actually flies astronauts. The final version of the New Shepard crew capsule will have six seats, each coming with a large window for a panoramic view of Earth’s curvature at peak altitude. The tourist version of Blue Origin will be a competitor to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which is aiming for the first commercial flight this year. Jeff Bezos’ Rocket Company Is ‘Very, Very Close’ to Launching Tourists Into Space