The folks who ride New Shepard, the suborbital spaceship being tested by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, will be given barf bags to tuck into their flight suits. But they almost certainly won’t need them.
That’s the word from former NASA astronaut Nicholas Patrick, who is now working out what passengers aboard New Shepard will experience. His official title at Blue Origin is human integration architect.
Patrick and other Blue Origin employees showed off what the company’s done so far, and what it plans to do over the next couple of years, for a standing-room crowd of about 500 folks on Friday night during an “Astronomy on Tap” presentation at the Peddler Brewing Company in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood.
Over the past 14 months, New Shepard has made five successful uncrewed flights to space and back, rising beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles) in altitude from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas.
If all goes according to plan, Bezos has said New Shepard could start carrying trained test astronauts by the end of this year, and take on paying passengers next year. Patrick basically confirmed that’s still the plan, but declined to provide a more detailed timeline.
“We don’t publish the details of the flight test program, that’s proprietary information,” Patrick said. “So what I can tell you is I expect we’ll be flying people in the next year or two.”
When that happens, passengers can expect to take an 11-minute ride that goes roughly straight up and straight down from a launch pad that’s about a two-hour drive from El Paso. Up to six passengers will take their seats, looking downward through big picture windows.
There won’t be a pilot on board. Instead, launch and ascent will be controlled remotely and autonomously, with backup systems set up in case something goes wrong. New Shepard’s escape system was successfully tested in October under worst-case conditions.
Passengers will experience 1.5 to 3 G’s of acceleration on the way up, which is about what you’d feel when you’re riding a roller coaster. At the top of the ride, you’ll have 3.5 to 4 minutes of weightless. That’ll be your opportunity to unhook the straps and float around the roomy 530-cubic-foot cabin.
An array of cameras will be placed all over the cabin, so you shouldn’t have to worry about taking your own selfies (or bringing up a bulky camera that could pose a flight hazard).
On the way down, the crew capsule will be slowed by parachutes, and you should flump back down onto West Texas rangeland with a jolt of less than 5 mph.
During Friday night’s Q&A, Patrick provided more details about the anticipated passenger experience. Here’s an edited transcript of the discussion:
Q: How will you let passengers know that it’s time to stop floating around and get back in their seats?
Patrick: “The answer is not just one, not just two, but three or four different methods. The first method is that there’ll be what you would call an idiot light by every window that says ‘Fasten Your Harness.’
“Method No. 2 is that we’ll have a capcom, capsule communicator in our mission control, who’ll get on the radio and say, ‘No, really, get back in your seats.’ The view may be fun, but you’ll want to get back and talk about it.
“And the third thing is, we’ve got this wonderful system called the base of the vehicle. It’s really going to be generating G’s. If nothing else persuades people to get back in their seats, that will surely do it.”
Q: How much will it cost to take a ride on New Shepard?
A: “The answer is not a closely held secret. The answer is, we haven’t decided yet. I can tell you that there are other companies doing this, and you’re welcome to go to the Web and figure out how much they charge. It’s quite a lot. [Spoiler alert: The cost of a ticket to space is $250,000 for Virgin Galactic, and $100,000 to $150,000 for XCOR Space Expeditions.]
“Obviously, everybody’s goal is to get this price down a long way. We’re not going to get millions of people living and working in space by charging a quarter of a million dollars or $100,000 just for a suborbital flight. We need to get that cost down to thousands or even hundreds of dollars eventually. That way we can afford to send a lot of people up there, which is when the space-based economy will really take off.”
Q: How much training will passengers need?
A: “It’s a short flight, so we won’t be asking people to train for a year, the way NASA astronauts trained for a shuttle flight, or three years, the way they train for a long space station mission.
“We’re going to get this training down to a matter of days, or less. That’s because we don’t have very many tasks. You need to know how to get out of your seat gracefully, and back into your seat safely.
“We’ll teach you a few safety procedures, like how to use the fire extinguisher – and maybe how to use the communication system, although that will come naturally to many people.
“What we’ll probably spend some time on is training people how to enjoy it. What are they going to take with them and use up there? How are they going to play? How are they going to experiment? Not too much training, just enough to have fun.”
Q: Where are you putting the barf bag?
A: “I hope we won’t need any. Here’s why: You’ve all heard of the ‘Vomit Comet’? This is the airplane that NASA uses to expose astronauts to microgravity and to send up experiments and give them a little zero-G time.
“This airplane flies parabolas, up and down. It would fly 40 parabolas, and then come home to Houston. I’m not particularly immune to seasickness or motion sickness. I found that when I flew this thing, the first time I did it, my doctor said, ‘Calibrate yourself. Don’t medicate and see how long you last.’ I lasted 23 parabolas. I medicated gently on subsequent flights on that vehicle, and I didn’t get sick.
“This is one parabola. It’s an enormous parabola, but I’m hopeful that the vast majority of people will not get sick on this flight. If they do, we’ll give them a barf bag. We’ll put it somewhere in their flight suit where it’s handy.”
Q: What kind of spacesuits will people wear?
A: “Spacesuits are a fascinating subject. But we’re not going to require spacesuits on this vehicle. We looked really hard at whether or not we would need them, and what they would add to the flight, and we’ve concluded at this point that we are able to fly people in flight suits.
“It’s simpler, it’s easier and it’s more comfortable. It will make for a better experience. And we’re not going to spend a long time in orbit where we can’t come back immediately. We know where we’re coming back. It’s 11 minutes after we launch. The cabin is full of air, and we have an emergency oxygen system. That’s how we’ve chosen to address that issue.”
Blue Origin hasn’t yet set a ticket price, and it’s not taking reservations. But you can join a mailing list that provides updates on the venture’s progress, including missives from Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin is taking applications for summer internships, but the deadline to apply is Tuesday. The company is also listing nearly 120 job openings. Most of those openings are at Blue Origin’s headquarters and production facility in Kent, Wash.
The next “Astronomy on Tap Seattle” event will take place at Seattle’s Peddler Brewing Company on Feb. 22. The speakers will be Rory Barnes, a University of Washington astronomer who specializes in the search for potentially habitable extrasolar planets; and Dan Dixon, the creator and director of Universe Sandbox, an interactive space and gravity simulator. Keep watch on the Astronomy on Tap website and Facebook page for further details.