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Blue Origin launches what may be final test flight before carrying people

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket and capsule lifts off from Texas on Wednesday in what may be the final test flight before the space company carries people. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket and capsule lifts off from Texas on Wednesday in what may be the final test flight before the space company carries people. Photo courtesy of Blue Origin

April 14 (UPI) -- Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched Wednesday from Texas what may be the last test flight for its New Shepard rocket before it carries people later this year.

The rocket lifted off about 12:50 p.m. EDT from the company's spaceport near Van Horn, about 120 miles southeast of El Paso. New Shepard soared into the hazy spring sky, reaching velocity of more than 2,200 mph.

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"Now the anticipation is ... really building here at Blue Origin after 15 consecutive successful missions," Arianne Cornell, director of sales at the company, said during a live broadcast. "We are well on our way to flying astronauts, and talking about astronauts."

In a dramatic test, Blue Origin employees wearing flight suits rode out to the launch pad on the company's so-called Road to Space. Two of them entered the capsule and strapped into seats, allowing the crew to test the closing of the spacecraft hatch with people inside.

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The company chose for the rehearsal Audrey Powers, vice president of legal and compliance, and Gary Lai, an engineer who helped design the capsule.

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Upon landing with the aid of parachutes, the capsule was to be tested by crew to practice exiting after a mission.

The goal is to allow true space tourism for anyone, said Kevin Sproge, Blue Origin's director of space architecture for New Shepard, during the broadcast.

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"You don't need to be a NASA astronaut, you don't need to be a trained engineer, we want artists and poets, teachers and scientists," Sproge said.

Such human spaceflight endeavors need as many companies as possible helping to advance human spaceflight, said Andy Turnage, executive director of the non-profit Association of Space Explorers, based in the Houston area.

"The larger and more varied the industry ... the less vulnerable it is to any single failure or even any number of failures," Turnage said in an interview Tuesday. The association includes more than 400 astronauts, cosmonauts and private space flyers.

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"It appears that Blue [Origin] has demonstrated a methodical and conservative approach to launching and recovering their vehicles," he said, adding that such caution worked for SpaceX and NASA over a period of years.

Blue Origin's plan to put people on board just prior to launch, even without launching them, represents major progress for the company, said John Spencer, a space architect and founder of the non-profit Space Tourism Society based in Los Angeles.

"I think this is a significant step forward because of the interface with the people, real people being in the capsule," Spencer said in an interview Tuesday.

"I'm sure Blue will learn some things. When you put people and those pieces of high-tech equipment together there's always a chance for a problem or issue," he said.

Despite the risks of spaceflight, Blue Origin's rocket and capsule offer an experience more in line with the public perception of spaceflight than Virgin Galactic's spaceplane, Spencer said.

During the flight, the capsule contained only a test dummy, Mannequin Skywalker, along with more than 25,000 postcards from members of Blue Origin's Club for the Future, a non-profit founded by Blue Origin that promotes space exploration.

The launch took place just after NASA announced Friday that it will partner with Blue Origin to use the New Shepard rocket for lunar gravity tests. Blue Origin will spin the rocket briefly on future missions to simulate the low gravity of the moon, allowing NASA to test equipment and procedures for future lunar missions.

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Out-of-this-world images from space

This composite image made from six frames shows the International Space Station, with a crew of seven aboard, in silhouette as it transits the sun at roughly 5 miles per second on April 23, 2021, as seen from Nottingham, Md. Aboard are: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Mark Vande Hei; Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Joining the crew aboard station the next day were Crew-2 mission crew members: Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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