Blue Origin targets 2017 for manned flights

The 'New Shepard' rocket launches from its West Texas launch site as it began its historic test - image courtesy of Blue Origin.
The 'New Shepard' rocket launches from its West Texas launch site. Image courtesy of Blue Origin.

US private spaceflight company Blue Origin has announced a timeframe for manned space launches in the coming years.

According to new information revealed by the company, the first such flights would begin sometime in 2017.

Speaking during the first ever media tour of Blue Origin’s Kent HQ, CEO Jeff Bezos, who also founded Amazon, explained these new plans.

“We’ll probably fly test pilots in 2017, and if we’re successful then I’d imagine putting paying astronauts on in 2018,” Bezos reportedly said.

The company, which is notoriously secretive compared to its competitors gave 11 reporters a tour of its factory and explained in detail their space tourism and rocket development progress.

Among the systems shown off included the BE-4 engine which will be used by the ULA Vulcan rocket, and the New Shepard spacecraft developed in-house.

Space tourism dreams

The primary thrust of Blue Origin currently is the New Shepard, a rocket intended not to carry cargo into orbit but rather space tourists.

This rocket, once complete will be able to carry a crew of 6 paying passengers above the legally-defined boundary of space, where they will experience weightlessness for several minutes, before returning to Earth.

Despite the announced 2018 date for the beginning of these flights, the company has yet to announce how much a seat aboard this craft will cost.

While focused on this space tourism business, Blue Origin sees it as merely as a means to commercializing spaceflight and developing new technologies to lower the cost of all kinds of space travel.

The race for reusability

One key technology being tested by the company on the New Shepard rocket is reusability. This vehicle can launch a capsule into space, before returning to Earth and firing its main engine to hover and then land back at the launch pad.

Similar technology is also being used by fellow commercial spaceflight company SpaceX which has seen some success with an even more ambitious system, returning rocket stages from much faster trajectories.

Should either company succeed in proving the viability of this technology, the overall cost of space launches could be greatly reduced, and subsequently usher in a new age of super-cheap spaceflight.