On a West Texas plain in early October, engineers launched a liquid-fuel, single-engine rocket designed to carry passengers to the edge of space. When it reached 16,000 feet, where it’s at peak aerodynamic stress, the rocket tested its emergency escape system. The bulbous capsule on top, where the crew would sit, fired a separate engine and lofted away, touching down safely nearby.
This launch, the sixth successful one in a year and a half for Blue Origin, the aerospace company funded by Amazon.com Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, highlighted efforts to make the craft disaster-proof. A month earlier, an orbital rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX blew up on the launchpad, taking a $200 million Facebook satellite with it. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, long the front-runner in suborbital spaceflight tests, has had to rebuild after its SpaceShipTwo rocket-plane fatally crashed two years ago. Given its recent spaceflights, “Blue appears to be in the lead right now,” says Doug Messier, managing editor at space industry blog Parabolic Arc.
Blue Origin declined to comment for this story. Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides says most people who prepaid for flights on SpaceShipTwo stuck with his and Branson’s company. “They know that if it’s something that Richard’s going to fly on, something that I’m going to fly on, that I’m going to make damn sure that we feel comfortable putting people on,” he says.
For any non-rocket-scientists, a quick refresher: SpaceX’s rockets have made nine trips to the International Space Station, 200 miles above the earth’s surface, traveling 20 times the speed of sound. Blue Origin’s computer-controlled rockets and Virgin Galactic’s piloted rocket-plane are competing in a different market: brief earth-gazing and research trips to suborbital space, which starts 62 miles from where you’re standing and requires travel at only three times the speed of sound.
Virgin has been king of that field ever since it acquired the technology and team behind SpaceShipOne, which carried out suborbital flights in 2004. Besides the 2014 crash, though, the company had trouble bulking up SpaceShipOne’s relatively low-power engine for use in the larger SpaceShipTwo. “Scaling this motor has been really challenging,” Whitesides says. “But we feel really good about our team now and the motor itself.”
Blue Origin said in October that it’ll fly test astronauts next year and paying passengers the year after. Whitesides declined to set any dates for Virgin.
Barring further production delays, Branson’s company should still be able to start commercial flights around the same time Blue Origin does, says Phil Smith, senior space analyst at the Tauri Group, a consulting firm. Virgin also likely has the better invite list: The company says it’s booked about 700 reservations for five-minute tastes of weightlessness at the edge of space. Tickets cost $250,000 each, and the company has received at least $89 million in deposits for reservations, according to the Financial Times. (Whitesides wouldn’t comment on sales.) Blue Origin, which is marketing a similar sightseeing experience, hasn’t disclosed pricing or booking figures.
Between research scientists and wannabe astronauts, there should be plenty of customers for more than one suborbital spaceflight company, says Jeff Foust, a senior writer for SpaceNews magazine. Parabolic’s Messier says many who’ve waited years for a glimpse of the final frontier will probably be happy to book a trip on either craft. “It’s likely,” he says, “that some people will want to do both.”
The bottom line: Blue Origin’s successful ejection test may put it ahead of Virgin Galactic in flying the first passengers to suborbital space.