Space company Blue Origin powered the unpiloted New Shepard spacecraft through its first developmental test flight on Wednesday, April 29. (Blue Origin founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.) (Blue Origin)

Jeff Bezos's space company launched a rocket Wednesday, another significant step in the burgeoning private-sector space race.

In a statement, Bezos, who founded Amazon.com and owns The Washington Post, said the engine "flawlessly" powered the unpiloted New Shepard spacecraft through its first developmental test flight. The rocket reached Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound, and an altitude of 307,000 feet, or 58 miles, very close to what's largely considered the threshold of space.

"Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return," Bezos said. "In fact, if New Shepard had been a traditional expendable vehicle, this would have been a flawless first test flight."

The launch puts the company a step closer to taking tourists into suborbital space, where they would have the rare chance to experience weightlessness and glimpse the Earth from more than 60 miles away. The New Shepard capsule can carry three or more astronauts and scientific payloads.

Bezos is among a new vanguard of ultra-wealthy entrepreneurs who have turned their interest in space into businesses. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Paul Allen's Vulcan Aerospace also are working to advance private space travel. And Elon Musk’s SpaceX has contracts with NASA to fly cargo, and eventually astronauts, to the International Space Station.

Like other companies, Blue Origin wants to create reusable vehicles, which would dramatically lower the cost of space flight. While the capsule, guided by parachutes, landed safely back on Earth, the propulsion module was lost, Bezos said, "because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent." "Fortunately, we’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system," he said.

Blue Origin was also chosen to develop an engine for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. That engine, the BE-4, would be more powerful than the BE-3 used in Wednesday's launch.

Like Musk, who wants to colonize Mars, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson recently told reporters that the company has a “long-term vision to extend humankind beyond our planet.”

“Yesterday’s test flight is truly a testament to the progress the commercial space sector is making towards innovative, cost-effective, and reliable access to space,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “The development of these technologies will create an avenue for increased commerce and science in space, and will continue to push the bounds of Earth’s economic sphere.

Here is a picture of New Shepard spacecraft taking off:


Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space company launched its New Shepard spacecraft on April 29. 2015.

Here the crew capsule is descending:


After a clean separation from the propulsion module, the New Shepard crew capsule descends to a gentle landing in the west Texas desert. (Source: Blue Origin)