During a webcast of the test flight Tuesday, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said only that the company is “very close” to being ready to fly humans.
New Shepard consists of two pieces — a small, dome-shaped capsule with gaping rectangular windows, and a 60-foot-tall rocket booster that blasts the capsule up to three times the speed of sound as it hurtles toward outer space. The capsule is designed to detach from the rocket near the top of its flight path, climbing more than 60 miles high and spending a few minutes suspended in weightlessness before parachuting back to Earth.
New Shepard flew multiple experiments for NASA during its Tuesday test launch, including a sensor mounted to the rocket booster’s exterior that was designed to study how future spacecraft might conduct more precise landings on the lunar surface.
Blue Origin is also designing a much larger rocket, named New Glenn, that the company hopes will deliver cargo and satellites into orbit, a much more difficult and higher speed journey than the short, suborbital endeavors New Shepard undertakes.
But for all of Blue Origin’s plans for futurist space technologies, the company is often seen as an underdog in the commercial space exploration scene, where Elon Musk’s SpaceX dominates headlines. While Blue Origin, founded in 2000, has never sent humans to space or put a rocket in orbit, SpaceX, a younger company by two years, is launching massive batches of satellites, sending astronauts to the International Space Station, and test flying a Mars rocket prototype.
Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have close ties to NASA, though SpaceX has won billions more in government contract money over the years.
And both companies are planning to work closely with the space agency on its plan to return astronauts — two people, including the first-ever woman — to the Moon.