Elon Musk’s SpaceX hogged the space-related headlines in 2017, and for good reason. It shot a record number of rockets (18) into orbit this year—many with re-used hardware; it caused an uproar in Los Angeles during its particularly spectacular launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 22; and last week, it moved the most powerful current rocket in existence, the 27-engine Falcon Heavy, onto the famed pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for an anticipated launch in January. All spectacular stuff.
But while Musk has been busy showing off…er, innovating in the world of low-cost, reusable rocketry, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been flying a bit further under the radar with his own space launch program, Blue Origin. His first rockets—much smaller and stubbier, and launched from a humble locale in west Texas—are designed to carry passengers and payloads just 62 miles (330,000 feet) above the ground, crossing the line into what’s technically space without going high enough or fast enough to actually reach orbit the way Musk’s rockets do. His suborbital launches typically last just over 10 minutes, from blastoff to touchdown.
Blue Origin’s launch vehicle, dubbed “New Shepard,” has only flown a handful of times in several versions, and only once in 2017, in a test flight on December 12. But that flight was as significant as anything SpaceX has done this year—if for no other reason than the flight demonstrated the performance of the new Crew Capsule 2.0, signaling that the Bezos rocket could realistically be the first of the two companies to carry living humans into space. The company expects its first engineers and pilots to fly in the craft some time this year, possibly beating Musk to the manned space flight stage. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule—the passenger-carrying version of the cargo capsule it’s been using to shuffle gear to the International Space Station—hasn’t flown yet at all, let alone with people aboard.
Both companies have said that they expect to start taking paying passengers on flights in 2019, so they both need to get moving this year vis-à-vis their own test crews taking the flights. Blue Origin expects an uncrewed flight will happen in April, followed by a crewed launch in August. The other player in the mix—Boeing, with its CST-100 Starliner capsule, competing with SpaceX for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—also expects both uncrewed and crewed flights in the second half of this year, though it won’t be offering seats to space tourists.
But rocketry, of course, is a persistently dangerous and unpredictable proposition; one launch failure can set a program back months, and any accident with human occupants would set a program back years. Space tourism startup Virgin Galactic learned this the hard way, when one of its combined rocket/spaceplane vehicles crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing a pilot. Since then, Virgin Galactic has been cagey about timelines for its effort, as it takes baby steps back toward powered flight tests.