Blue Origin successfully launches experiments for NASA as Bezos’ company nears first human flights

Blue Origin launched its 10th flight of the New Shepard rocket on Wednesday, in a mission which sent eight NASA research and development experiments into space.

Lifting off from the company’s facility in the desert of West Texas, the New Shepard rocket launched the capsule on top past an altitude of 350,000 feet – more than 100 kilometers up.

Blue Origin, which Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos founded nearly two decades ago, is developing the New Shepard rocket system for the company’s space tourism business. Six passengers would ride past the edge of space, where they would spend about 10 minutes floating in zero gravity before returning back to Earth. The capsule features massive windows, providing expansive views of the Earth once in space.

NASA pays commercial rocket companies under the agency’s Flight Opportunities program to test and demonstrate technologies. Blue Origin has eight payloads on board for NASA programs and academic institutions. The payloads are a variety of experiments, from gathering data on vibration experience during spaceflight to testing a possible solution for cooling electronics on a spacecraft.

Named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, the New Shepard system is reused by Blue Origin. Reusability is a key part of Blue Origin’s plan to turn space tourism into a business. Similar to SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket system, New Shepard’s booster – the bottom and largest section of the rocket – launches straight up and then returns straight down to land.

This was the fourth test flight for this individual rocket booster, which is the third booster Blue Origin has built. The company said on Twitter that it has “two rockets in the barn in West Texas,” with the latest addition planned to begin “flying humans to space next year.”

Blue Origin is nearing commercial operations in several of its businesses. Bezos’ space company won a massive rocket engine deal for its propulsion business in September, completed a key flight test for New Shepard in July and won NASA support for its Blue Moon lunar lander program.

Bezos has called Blue Origin “the most important work I’m doing.” Bezos also believes there will be more than 1 trillion humans living and working across the solar system one day. Wall Street has begun to pay attention to Bezos’ extra-terrestrial efforts. Morgan Stanley told clients “to take notice” of Bezos investments in the space industry through Blue Origin, pointing to him as a “force” bringing financial muscle. Blue Origin is one of several space companies which Morgan Stanley says “will up the ante starting in 2019.”

While New Shepard is in the final stages of testing, competitor Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is now a step ahead of Bezos in the space tourism business. Virgin Galactic completed its longest rocket-powered flight ever on Thursday, making its pilots the company’s first astronauts to reach the edge of space. Virgin Galactic said the test flight reached an altitude of 51.4 miles, or nearly 83 kilometers.

While Virgin Galactic has more than 600 people signed up for future launches, at $250,000 per ticket, Blue Origin has not begun selling tickets. Blue Origin told CNBC earlier this year that the company will only offer tourists a ride to space “after our first human flights.”

NASA is reaping the benefits of the rising commercial capabilities. Blue Origin’s flight carried three versions of the four NASA-funded payloads that Virgin Galactic carried along last week.

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