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Blue Origin launches, recovers capsule with more space tourism amenities

Blue Origin launched the New Shepard rocket Thursday from Texas with upgraded passenger experience technology inside the capsule. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin
Blue Origin launched the New Shepard rocket Thursday from Texas with upgraded passenger experience technology inside the capsule. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin

Jan. 14 (UPI) -- Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, successfully launched and recovered a new capsule Thursday that includes new amenities for space tourists.

The uncrewed flight lifted off at 12:19 p.m. EST from the company's Corn Ranch spaceport about 150 miles east of El Paso, Texas. About 11 minutes later, the booster and capsule had returned safely to the dusty West Texas soil.

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The NS-14 mission is the 14th flight of a suborbital New Shepard rocket. The capsule is outfitted with improved acoustics to dampen the roar, better interior temperature regulation, crew display panels, and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat, the company said.

"You've seen in there the white acoustic paneling -- that's to dampen any engine noises or any sorts of other ambient noises in the final moments here," Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin's director of astronaut and orbital sales, said in a live launch broadcast.

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The company said it is "very, very close" to its first crewed flights, but Blue Origin hasn't announced a specific date for such flights.

The mission also tested "a number of astronaut communication and safety alert systems," according to Blue Origin's launch announcement. The goal is to sell tickets to tourists in the coming years.

"They are taking the acoustics very seriously, and that will be important for the passenger experience," said John Spencer, a space architect and president of the non-profit Space Tourism Society based in Los Angeles.

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"In a metal capsule, sounds during a launch would be magnified and very loud without acoustic dampening, so that is essential if people want to plan a quick space wedding or another event where you'd want music."

Blue Origin's rocket ride would be very different than Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic space experience, Spencer said. Virgin uses a spaceplane that takes off under an airplane

"Riding up a launch tower and walking out on that gantry to a capsule, with a countdown -- that fulfills the mythos of spaceflight we know from the Apollo and space shuttle era," Spencer said.

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Some wealthy space tourists might want to try both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, he said.

Spencer said it's unclear when Blue Origin will launch people. "I think the pandemic still has an impact, possibly a bigger impact than their technology or the system," he said.

The New Shepard capsule, which has carried science experiments on previous flights, has six seats. The company's test dummy, Mannequin Skywalker, occupied one of those seats outfitted with sensors to measure shock or pressure from gravitational forces.

Blue Origin's capsule was to reach the Kármán line, about 62 miles high, within minutes. The rocket was to fly back to the pad while the capsule lands with assistance from parachutes.

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