“If you look at Branson’s spacecraft, he’s really creating a transportation system that is very much like a commercial airline. You’re going to take off at an airport and you’re going to land at an airport,“ says Lugo.
Bezos’s is what most aerospace engineers would call a more traditional take on crewed spacecraft, Lugo says. Blue Origin’s entire launch and reentry took about 10 minutes. The crew launched from within a capsule attached to the nose of a rocket, which detached and returned to Earth as the crew capsule continued into space, reaching a maximum height of 351,210 feet before beginning its fall back to Earth and then deploying parachutes to land.
Regardless of their differences, experts say, both flights represent major milestones in the future of spaceflight.
“These vehicles are reimagining travel just as the pioneers of early airplanes did,” says Elaine Petro, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell.
Beyond getting humans closer to orbit, Petro says, both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin could advance new approaches to faster cross-continental travel, since both vehicles can reach speeds four to five times those of a regular airplane.
Petro is encouraged by the pace of progress she’s seen in the industry. “Ten years ago, the Obama administration was pushing for the expansion of the commercial launch vehicle industry. Now two public space travel platforms have flown crews in the last week, and SpaceX is contracted to ferry astronauts to the moon,” she says.
And what’s next for Blue Origin? Although commercial space tourism is just getting started, Bezos hopes that launching more flights could bring down the cost so that in the next few decades, everyone can have a chance to experience the beauty of life above Earth.