Blue Origin’s latest launch brings it close to sending humans to space

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The New Shepard booster after returning to the landing pad on 14 April

Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the space flight company founded by Jeff Bezos, has completed what may be its last test flight before attempting to put astronauts aboard its New Shepard rocket. On 14 April, the US-based company launched the spacecraft – without a crew – to just past the edge of space and then returned it to the ground.

This marked the second successful Blue Origin test flight in 2021. Before the launch, four of the company’s executives acting as “stand-in astronauts” did everything that actual passengers would do before flying aboard New Shepard.

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They climbed to the top of the launch tower, got into the capsule, buckled in and checked the communications systems. Then they closed the hatch briefly before reopening it and got out before the launch. For the flight, a test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker sat in the capsule.

The rocket flew about 100 kilometres up before releasing the crew capsule and returning to a landing pad near the launch site in Texas. The capsule spent about 3 minutes in microgravity before coming back down, its descent slowed by a set of parachutes.

Blue Origin has not announced when the first crewed New Shepard flight will be, only saying that it will bring passengers to space “soon” during an online livestream of the launch. “Even if it’s not the next flight, it seems like they will have people onboard in the next few,” says space analyst Laura Forczyk. “We’ve all been wondering what’s been holding them up with their crewed flights, and maybe nothing is now.”

Those first passengers will probably be Blue Origin employees rather than paying customers until the company establishes a track record of safety with crewed flights, she says. “Eventually the crew will be tourists and researchers, and astronauts may be able to train for missions in lower gravity in one of these suborbital vehicles.”

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