By Christian Davenport / The Washington Post
Jeffrey P. Bezos’ Blue Origin got a step closer to flying tourists to space Tuesday when it launched a life-size dummy the company named “Mannequin Skywalker” from its remote West Texas facility.
The updated booster and crew capsule, which the company hopes to use to fly its first human tourists to space by as early as next year, hit a peak altitude of nearly 100 kilometers, or what’s considered the threshold of space, the company said in a statement. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The New Shepard booster, named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, then flew back to Earth, successfully touching down on a landing pad so that it can be reused. The capsule, designed with what Blue Origin says are the largest windows ever to fly into space, floated back under parachutes for a soft landing in a flight that lasted 10 minutes and six seconds.
“#NewShepard had a successful first flight of Crew Capsule 2.0 today,” Bezos wrote on Twitter. “Complete with windows and our instrumented test dummy. He had a great ride.”
Even though the rocket blasted off at about noon Eastern, the company didn’t announce it until some 11 hours later, and the Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed the launch, refused to confirm that it had occurred.
The launch, Blue Origin’s first in over a year, comes during a big week for the space industry, and it follows a White House ceremony this week in which President Donald Trump officially put NASA on a track back to the moon.
On Friday, Elon Musk hopes to pull off yet another improbable feat with the launch of a SpaceX rocket to the International Space Station: Both the booster of the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon spacecraft it will be lofting into orbit will have previously flown to space, proving that the era of reusable rocketry has arrived in earnest.
Earlier this year, SpaceX for the first time re-flew a booster. Then later it flew a Dragon spacecraft again. But Friday’s launch, a mission to carry 4,800 pounds of cargo and supplies to the space station, would be the first time a used booster and a used spacecraft would fly together. It’s also the first time NASA has allowed SpaceX to use a previously flown rocket on one of the agency’s missions.
Since SpaceX first landed a booster two years ago — typically they are ditched into the ocean, never to be used again — it has repeated the accomplishment numerous times in a quest to treat space travel more like commercial aviation. Airlines don’t throw away their airplanes after each use, as Musk and others have noted. Instead of falling into the sea, SpaceX’s rockets fly back to Earth, landing on a landing pad or on ships at sea.
“In the long run, reusability is going to significantly reduce the cost of access to space, and that’s what’s going to be required to send future generations to explore the universe,” Jessica Jensen, SpaceX’s Dragon mission manager, said during a news briefing Monday. “We want to be able to send thousands of people into space, not just tens.”
The launch has been delayed a couple of times, first because the company wanted to do additional checks of its ground systems, then because it found particles in the second stage fuel system. The launch is also notable because it would be the first from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral in Florida since a rocket explosion there caused $50 million in damage. A Falcon 9 rocket blew up in September 2016 while fueling ahead of an engine test.
Despite those setbacks, SpaceX has been on a roll this year. It has launched 16 times successfully, doubling the number of its launches in a single year and tying the greatest annual number by its chief rival, the United Launch Alliance.
In addition to launching the used boosters and spacecraft, SpaceX also christened launchpad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the historic site from which the Apollo astronauts took off for the moon.
Now the company is looking ahead to 2018, a potentially momentous year — not just for SpaceX but for several companies and NASA.
Under contract with NASA, Boeing and SpaceX are preparing to fly astronauts from U.S. soil in 2018, marking the first government launches since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Since then, NASA has had to send up its astronauts in Russian rockets, at a cost that stands at more than $80 million a seat.
Also next year, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Bezos’s Blue Origin could start flying paying tourists to the edge of space. And a company called Moon Express plans to fly a robotic lander to the lunar surface next year.
SpaceX’s launch would be one of a number of high-profile events this week, which began with President Trump signing a new space policy directive in a White House ceremony Monday. Although light on specifics, the president called for a return to the moon – in partnership with industry and international partners – not just to visit, but “for long-term exploration and use.”
Also on Tuesday, Arianespace, the French space company, completed its 11th successful launch of the year. Rocket Lab, a private space venture based in California and New Zealand, was set to attempt a test flight of its Electron rocket this week as well.
The rush of activity by the American space enterprise shows that the private sector increasingly threatens government’s long-held monopoly on space, said Mark Albrecht, who served as the executive secretary of the government’s National Space Council from 1989 to 1992.
“We may have reached that tipping point, or are close to it, where the center of space activity is moving toward these new commercial enterprises,” he said.
SpaceX has also been working toward launching its Falcon Heavy rocket, essentially three Falcon 9s bound together, in what would become a massive vehicle capable of flying to the moon and reaching Musk’s ultimate goal, Mars. Earlier this year, Musk promised another milestone for 2018: that he would fly two paying passengers on a trip around the moon.
But first, he’s got to fly the Falcon Heavy rocket. Its maiden flight was scheduled for this year, but after repeated delays, Musk now says it is set for January. He’s warned, though, that the chances of failure are high. Meaning 2018 could start off with a bang.