Blue Origin
Credits: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the space company from the latest second wealthiest person on the planet-Jeff Bezos, has successfully launched and landed its New Shepard vehicle during its latest mission, NS-14, which could pave the way for space tourism flights in the future.

Blue Origin has been developing New Shepard to carry people and payloads to suborbital space and back. Many scientific experiments have flown on the vehicle’s test missions, but New Shepard has yet to launch a person to space. This mission had he next best thing, a “dummy human” on board nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker, who sat in one of the capsule’s six seats. Moreover, the mission also carried 50,000 postcards written by students from account the world to space, some of which were in the dummy’s pockets.

“The success of this flight puts us one really big step closer to flying astronauts,” said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales, during a live webcast. “There’s going to be a lot of fun ahead in 2021.”

The New Shepard launched at 12:18 PM and its two reusable components, the rocket and the capsule, perfectly landed shortly thereafter. The booster came downwards for a powered, vertical touchdown in its assigned landing zone near the launch pad, and the capsule settled down steadily under the parachutes, raising a plume of desert dirt about 10 minutes after liftoff.

The spacecraft reached a maximum altitude of 350,827 feet or about 107 kilometers, which is above the traditionally recognized 100 km border of space.

Bezos aims to provide government and private customers low-cost access to space, though he trails rival billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Blue Origin has also strived hard to get a hold of NASA contracts in recent years but faces stiff competition. Its main competitors are SpaceX, which received $135 million from NASA to help develop its Starship system, and Leidos-owned Dynetics which won $253 million from NASA as well. In April, Blue Origin received a lunar lander development contract from NASA for $579 million.

Blue Origin is not the only prominent company in the suborbital space-tourism business. Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is developing a piloted space plane called SpaceShipTwo to take paying customers to the final frontier.