It’s such a nice spacecraft, so shiny and new, it seems a shame to crash it.
But that’s what Blue Origin may very well do on the next flight for the rocket it calls New Shepard. Jeff Bezos’ space company plans another test launch of the vehicle soon. And since the rocket is under development the company is taking pains to expand the envelope, putting additional stresses to see how it performs under less than ideal circumstances.
This time that means trying to land the unmanned capsule with a parachute that fails on purpose. That’ll allow the company to demonstrate its “ability to safely handle that failure scenario,” Bezos wrote in an email to subscribers. “It promises to be an exciting demonstration.”
And it comes at an exciting time. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, has said the U.S. has entered into “a golden age of space exploration.” There are more vehicles designed for human space travel than any time in the last 40 years, analysts say. And while the industry casts its eyes toward a chimerical future—where humans have colonized Mars and the moon and have stretched out by the thousands in the cosmos—there are some historic milestones just around the corner that may very well come true.
In a tour of his facility this spring, Bezos said that paying passengers should be able to climb aboard New Shepard to take a jaunt to suborbital space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is also in the testing phase of its new SpaceShipTwo, also designed to give space tourists the feeling of weightlessness of space and give them astounding views of the Earth from space.
Boeing, the aerospace giant, and SpaceX, the upstart founded by tech billionaire Elon Musk, are slated to start flying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station by late 2017 or early 2018. They’ll fly in new spacecraft—Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Dragon—that in many ways resemble the capsules flown during the Apollo era, but are far more advanced.
There is also a sporty little spaceplane called the Dream Chaser under development by the Sierra Neveda Corp., to take cargo to the space station; a monster rocket known as the Space Launch System being built by Boeing, and others, for NASA; a new deep space capsule called Orion that Lockheed Martin is building for NASA; and a replacement for the workhorse Atlas V rocket called Vulcan that’s under development by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing
For years, people have waited for the moment when the commercialization of space really happened, when there was a self-sustaining economy, and not just one propped up by the government. This may or may not be that moment. It’s still too early to tell for sure, analysts say.
For all the historic achievements, there have been slow starts and setbacks. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket blew up last year incinerating hundreds of pounds of cargo headed for the International Space Station. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo came apart in the middle of a test flight in 2014, killing the co-pilot. And it wasn’t until just recently that Blue Origin had a successful flight that reached the edge of space.
“It’s not the first time this has happened, and part of me is jaded. Efforts to create activity in commercial space has been around for a long time,” said Roger Launius, the associate director for collections and curatorial affairs at the National Air and Space Museum. “There’s been an incremental expansion of technology, which I think has made it more readily available to pursue than it might have been in the past.”
Many in the industry are also heartened by the fact that it has pulled off some feats once thought impossible, and is thinking big.
SpaceX has begun to make the landing of rockets seem routine. Blue Origin has also had a string of launches and landings of the same rocket, a key to ultimately lowering the cost of space flight, and opening it up to the masses. Musk has even vowed to land an unmanned spacecraft on Mars as early as 2018, and is developing a new Falcon Heavy rocket designed for the moon and Mars.
Meanwhile, all the grandiose talk of democratizing space has been backed up by significant private investment, which for years stayed away from an industry long seen as exceedingly risky. The surge in new money been led by the billionaires. Musk has invested $100 million of his own money; Branson and Bezos have said they’ve put in about $500 million each. But Google and the investment giant Fidelity also pumped a $1 billion into SpaceX.
The commercialization of space is “being taken more seriously because people have a business track record and are entering the space industry and making things happen and being disruptive,” said Phil Smith, a senior space analyst at the Tauri Group.