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Is this the future of space tourism?

January 4, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News. asks how the Blue Origin project plans to get off the ground.

This week, the secretive Blue Origin project released video footage of its first test flight, which took place in November 2006. The startling footage (see, with the added ingredients of a billionaire backer and a promise to offer well-heeled tourists the trip of a lifetime by 2010, has space tourism enthusiasts sitting up and taking notice. But will this project really be the one to open the doors to space?

What's the plan?

Blue Origin, the brainchild of founder Jeff Bezos, is a project to design a new type of spacecraft, called the New Shepard. The craft aims to blast three passengers and one crew member almost 100 kilometres into the air, giving them spectacular views and the right to brag that they have visited outer space.

The project, which has been shrouded in secrecy since its beginning in 2000, has the aim, in Bezos's words, of "working patiently, and step-by-step, to lower the cost of spaceflight so that many people can afford to go". According to the planning application to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aim is to run commercial trips by 2010.

How is it progressing?

Before this week, nobody knew. But now the project's website has released the first pictures and videos of the launch of its prototype rocket on 13 November. The footage shows the scaled down prototype, named Goddard after spaceflight pioneer Robert Goddard, blasting off vertically from a launch pad to a height of 85 metres, and landing the same way up, in the style of a 1950s sci-fi rocket.

The test, carried out on Bezos's private ranch near Van Horn, Texas, was scheduled to have been followed up with another on 30 November or 1 December. No lift-off was reported on either of these dates, but it is unclear whether the launch failed or whether the team was intending merely to test the engines.

How does it work?

The craft is designed to take off and land vertically, using downward-facing thrusters both to blast the one-piece vehicle into the air and to slow its descent as it returns to Earth. It is designed to blast into the air using a mix of 90% hydrogen peroxide and 10% kerosene, and its thrusters are switched off in mid-flight, giving it the high, narrow trajectory of a bullet fired almost directly upwards into the air. Somewhat confusingly, however, maps of the test site submitted to the FAA show a landing pad some 6 kilometres from the launch site.

Although it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, many aviation experts think that vertical rockets offer a more fuel-efficient route into space than other vehicles, such as aeroplane-type craft that skim the edge of the atmosphere during their high-altitude flights. The key problem for Blue Origin to overcome is to prevent the craft from rolling over while in flight they claim that Goddard's thrusters can be manoeuvred to control the craft, but it is not clear how exactly they do this.

How does this compare with other space tourism endeavours?

The richest of the rich can already book a $20-million ticket on the International Space Station, hitching a lift on a Russian Soyuz craft.

Other projects have already designed craft that could offer a more modestly priced trip into space. In 2004, SpaceShipOne scooped the $10-million Ansari X-prize after successfully visiting space twice in a fortnight. Bert Rutan, one of the project's designers, has now joined forces with entrepreneur Richard Branson to launch a fleet of such craft as the 'space airline' Virgin Galactic. They have already started taking bookings, and may begin flights as early as 2008.

Has anyone tried this type of rocket before?

Blue Origin's design mimics the DC-X, a one-piece, vertical take-off rocket tested by NASA in the early 1990s. NASA hoped that the design could be developed into a larger craft that would offer a rapidly reusable way to propel astronauts into space. But in 1995, on its eighth test flight, the prototype cracked in a hard landing and the design was shelved.

How much will a Blue Origin trip cost?

That, as they say, is the million-dollar question. And the answer is that we don't know yet. Given Bezos's apparent commitment to step-by-step progress, it seems that it will be a while before they bring out any brochures.

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