An artist's illustration of Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule during a suborbital flight. Image credit: Blue Origin

May 1, 2015 Suborbital spaceflight market taking shape

Sen—Blue Origin recently completed the first test flight of its suborbital vehicle New Shepard. After years of development behind closed doors, the success of the first unmanned test—almost reaching the 100 km mark—appears to have come out of nowhere.

In fact, Blue Origin has been building and testing the various components for the spacecraft, including its engine, for several years. Its journey has been a very private one, developing its engines and spacecraft in some secrecy.

Its not just Blue Origin's approach to the public gaze that has been different from those who will ultimately be competitors in the suborbital marketplace. Its spaceflight strategy is also different from those being pursued by Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, with the latter two planning to use vehicles that start and end their journeys on a runway, rather than using a vertical takeoff vertical landing rocket.

Blue Origin's approach is based on the orthodox method of reaching space, lifting a capsule atop a rocket. It's how it all started, with Gagarin's Vostok flight followed less than a month later by Alan Shepard's Freedom 7 suborbital flight back in 1961. It's no coincidence that Blue Origin named its vehicle after Alan Shepard.

Although the approach is well established, the technology is new. Blue Origin have built their own engine, the BE-3, to power New Shepard. The engine recently completed testing, enabling Blue Origin to fit the engine to the booster and begin test flights of the vehicle. The first flight was impressive, reaching the planned altitude of 307,000 ft (about 94 km). Dozens of unmanned flights are planned before the company's pilots will board the capsule for further testing.

Blue Origin's President recently told reporters that the test program could take two years, after which they would be open for business. The ticket price will be disclosed at the end of the test program.

With the emergence of Blue Origin's New Shepard, the space tourism market for suborbital flights is beginning to take shape, with each company offering a slightly different experience.

Virgin Galactic's system will see six passengers and two professional astronauts take off on a runway, with the rocketship known as SpaceShipTwo attached to a mothership. At approximately 50,000 ft (15 km) SpaceShipTwo will detach itself from the mothership, known as WhiteKnightTwo, engage its rocket motor and power its way into space. Like Blue Origin, the company aims to reach above 100 km.

Virgin Galactic passengers will be able to unstrap themselves and float around the cabin to enjoy weightlessness for a few minutes. Like Blue Origin, participants won't wear pressure suits aboard SpaceShipTwo, relying on the pressurized cabin environment. Finally, after buckling up for reentry, SpaceShipTwo will deploy its innovative feather wing system to slow down the vehicle's return to Earth, where it will glide to land on a runway. Tickets for a flight on Virgin Galactic are now USD $250,000.

After the tragic accident that destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo, the company is well on the way to completing the second rocketship. Test flights are expected to resume later this year. The timetable for the first commercial flight will be driven entirely by how the test program goes.

An alternative to Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic is being offered by XCOR Aerospace. Its Lynx spaceplane is designed to carry two people, one being a professional astronaut and the other being the customer. The spaceplane will take off from a runaway and use its rocket engine to power its way to 100 km. The first test flight is expected to take place later this year.

As a passenger aboard Lynx you will be given a full pressure spacesuit and remain strapped in your seat for the entire flight. Tickets for the Lynx retail at USD $100,000.

Blue Origin passengers, as shown in a promotional video about the experience on their web site, will wear a flight suit, rather than a pressurized spacesuit, and should enjoy seeing Earth from above 100 km. The New Shepard capsule can carry up to six people, depending on the mixture of passengers and science payload.

According to the company's web site, passengers will be able to unstrap themselves and experience weightlessness for a few minutes, looking out of the capsule's huge windows which make up a third of the capsule. After experiencing zero G, passengers will strap themselves back in for the return to Earth. The capsule, slowed down by parachutes, will return to land back around the launch site.

All three companies should be testing their suborbital vehicles this year and into next year. It will be interesting to see which vehicle is first to enter commercial operations. Each will have to pass intensive test programs and safety checks to obtain the necessary license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which administers commercial spaceflight in the United States, to fly passengers.


Artist's illustration of XCOR Aerospace's Lynx suborbital spaceplane. Image credit: XCOR Aerospace


Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo during a powered test flight. Image credit: Virgin Galactic


Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital capsule. Image credit: Blue Origin