Blue Origin, the rocket venture founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, executed what it called an “astronaut rehearsal” of its suborbital New Shepard rocket Wednesday, launching the craft to the edge of space after having employees board as if they were going to travel with it, then disembarking before liftoff.
It was the second time this year that the rocket had launched successfully as Blue Origin prepares for what it hopes one day will be missions carrying paying passengers. The demonstration took place at Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
“As part of today’s rehearsals, our stand-in astronauts went through the exact same movements as future customers will experience on launch day,” the Kent-based company said. The company livestreamed the event, including images of the capsule’s landing in a cloud of dust.
Before the launch, the “stand-in astronauts” climbed the launch tower, stepped into the crew chamber, buckled their harnesses and performed a communications check with the command center. They briefly closed the hatch, before exiting the crew quarters atop the 60-foot-tall rocket.
Instead of having actual people on board during the mission, Blue Origin sent up a test dummy named “Mannequin Skywalker.”
New Shepard took flight shortly before 10 a.m. Pacific time, shooting more than 60 miles into the air toward the Karman line, widely recognized as the point where space begins. The boosters then separated from the crew capsule and glided back to a soft vertical landing on Earth.
Detached from the engine system, the crew capsule hovered in microgravity before parachuting to the ground a few minutes later. Total trip time: just over 10 minutes.
Blue Origin’s stand-in astronauts were then driven to the crew chambers to rehearse recovery procedures such as opening the hatch and exiting the capsule.
The practice run dubbed “NS-15” was the company’s 15th test flight since 2015. The company promises the vehicle will carry passengers to space “soon.”
New Shepard is designed to carry six passengers and has large windows to allow the people aboard to see out. The vehicle is named for Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space in 1961.
After decades as a government monopoly, human spaceflight may soon become a private venture. SpaceX is planning to carry the first all civilian crew to space, perhaps this year. Virgin Galactic, founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, also is working to conduct suborbital flights to the edge of space.
“There will be many players in this human endeavor to go to space to benefit Earth,” Blue Origin says on its website. “We will go about this step by step because it is an illusion that skipping steps gets us there faster. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”