As Ars Technica notes, Blue Origin test flew a new version of its suborbital New Shepard rocket along with a new and improved crew capsule. The crew capsule had windows on it, 3.6 feet tall, for the future enjoyment of paying passengers who will fly just past the Edge Of Space to experience microgravity and a view of the curvature of the Earth before descending, slowed by parachutes.

This time, the crew capsule contained a test dummy dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker” covered with sensors to simulate what would happen to a human being during a fright. The crew capsule ascended to 99 miles in the skies over the Blue Origin test range in Texas before descending, hitting the ground at a gentle one mile an hour.

The launch vehicle landed safely on its own power.

The space tourism race

With the demise of XCOR, the space tourism race is between Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic has started testing SpaceShipTwo, redesigned since a fatal accident, and has begun to move its operations from the Mojave Space Port to SpacePort America in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Virgin Galactic will, therefore, be able to evade the “rocket tax” recently imposed by the State of California.

The start of Virgin Galactic’s commercial space tourism flight, to be conducted from a rocket plane launched from an aircraft that will fly to the edge of space before landing on a runway, has often been delayed due to technical problems. Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, is confidently predicting commercial flights by 2018, though history suggests taking such pronouncements with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin is scheduled to start crewed test flights of the New Shepard in 2018 with commercial operations to begin sometime after.

The dawn of the private space traveler

Private people have been traveling in space since the beginning of this century when Space Adventures started taking paying customers to the International Space Station in a Russian Soyuz at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. Flights on SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The cost of a ride into space will still be expensive, reserved for the well-heeled and adventurous. However, the price is likely to decline over time, and the services will expand as orbital tourist craft come online. What was once the sole province of government astronauts or more recently the super rich will, if dreams of space entrepreneurs like Branson and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, will be something ordinary people can indulge in for the jaunt of a lifetime.