In West Texas, Blue Origin is flying high. On Wednesday, December 11, 2019, Blue Origin launched the twelfth flight of their fully autonomous New Shepard system to a height of about 65 miles, past the Karman line which traditionally denotes the boundary of space. After just over 10 minutes the rocket safely returned to Earth. This was the sixth flight for this particular rocket. The payloads for this flight were a gas experiment for NASA and hundreds of postcards from Blue Origin’s “Club for the Future”.
This uncrewed test of New Shepard, marks what could be the last test before paying space tourism customers begin making the trip. Blue Origin Director of Sales, Ariane Cornell, claimed that the company would start passenger flights this year, but has more recently stated that they were, “getting very close.”
The New Shepard system is designed to compete directly with Virgin Galactic for space tourism dollars. The capsule of New Sheppard is designed with a large window for each cushy flight seat, offering panoramic views from space for each new astronaut. As for cost for the experience, Blue Origin has remained tight-lipped, but the cost could be in the hundreds of thousands. Flights on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo system cost $250,000 per seat, with costs increasing after the initial group of 600 pre-paid adventurers have flown.
Space tourism has tremendous potential to develop in the next few years, with Virgin and Blue Origin developing launch systems specifically for the task. In 2018, space start-up Orion Span announced the first space hotel set to launch in 2021. As the price of launch continues to drop, more entrants into the market are sure to come. Many analysts predict that the cost per seat might become down to the realm of reality for the average middle class American within ten years.