On Tuesday, the Blue Origin rocket made its first flight in over a year, reviving the US company’s fortunes with a triumphant return to space following an uncrewed crash that cost it 15 months. The New Shepard rocket soared from West Texas, lifting a capsule full of experiments from NASA and others to the fringes of space. It exposed the experiments to a few minutes of weightlessness before parachuting back to the desert. The rocket landed first, reaching an altitude of 66 miles on the 10-minute flight.
Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, competes in the emerging space tourism business. Its New Shepard rocket and space capsule carry passengers for a few minutes of weightlessness in “suborbital” space. The Kent, Washington-based company has yet to take reservations, but it’s expected to begin commercial flights later this year. The company has tested the spacecraft multiple times and is refining it to prepare for paying customers. Its main competitor, Virgin Galactic, has also been flying regularly.
Virgin’s suborbital flight service is expected to pause its monthly flights soon as it upgrades its fleet, but it plans to continue flying crewed missions to space when it resumes. The company has carried out six crewed flights—including two with passengers, one of whom was Bezos’ brother—since 2021.
Blue’s success on Tuesday paves the way for the company to resume its crewed flights with the help of a giant, heavier rocket called New Glenn. The company expects the New Glenn to fly in 2024, a milestone that would pave the way for Blue Origin’s goal of sending humans to Mars.
The company’s test flights now use a smaller version of the New Shepard, which can hold four people. The next test will feature an entire cabin, including three seats for paying customers.
For Elizabeth Kennick, president of Teachers in Space, the chance to fly an experiment on a New Shepard was too good to pass up. Her nonprofit organization helps schools develop and test standard equipment for classroom-developed science experiments. Its 3D-printed frames, customizable processors, power adapters, and other parts have flown on high-altitude balloons and stratospheric gliders. The equipment was a finalist for the NASA Flight Opportunities program, helping fund this latest mission on Blue Origin’s reusable rocket.
It’s the organization’s first trip to space with this equipment. The experiment is a test of a new thermal insulation that could help improve the efficiency of spacecraft and reduce fuel usage. The project is backed by a $50,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Science Advances. The NASA grant is a small part of the nearly $2 billion Bezos had poured into Blue Origin since 2000 when the former CEO of Amazon sold off much of his stake in that company to focus on lowering the cost of space travel by making rockets reusable like airplanes.