When Jeff Bezos rockets into space on Tuesday, he’ll be taking a huge risk. New Shepard has flown successfully 15 times since 2015, though never with people onboard. So although it’s a relatively reliable launch system, rockets are always risky.
“It’s about 10,000 times more dangerous than flying on a commercial airliner,” George Nield, a former associate administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, previously told Insider. “In order to learn how to do this safer, more reliably, and more cost effectively , many people believe we need to keep gaining experience by having more and more of these flights.”
Climbing aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket with Bezos — and also placing their lives in the company’s hands — will be his brother Mark Bezos, 82-year-old aviator Wally Funk, and 18-year-old Dutch student Oliver Daemen. The rocket is set to carry them to the edge of space, where they’ll experience about three minutes of weightlessness and stunning views.
About 1% of US human spaceflights have resulted in a fatal accident, according to an analysis that Nield co-authored earlier this year.
Like many other launch systems, though, New Shepard comes with an escape system. If the rocket starts to fail, the capsule that carries the passengers is programmed to detach itself from the rocket and jettison away from impending doom.
It’s designed to “get the astronauts away, and get them to safety,” Gary Lai, senior director of New Shepard’s design, said in a Blue Origin video about safety, posted online in April.
Blue Origin has tested the emergency escape system 3 times
If all goes according to plan, Bezos and his companions will lift off from Blue Origin’s Texas launchpad around 9 am ET on Tuesday. The New Shepard rocket will scream through the atmosphere, pressing the riders into their seats, before releasing the passenger capsule and allowing it to arc past the edge of space. The entire flight is automated, so no pilot will be onboard flying the spaceship.
For about three minutes, Bezos and his companions will feel weightless. They’ll be able to float around the spaceship’s cabin, admiring the Earth’s curvature below, before gravity begins to pull them back down. As they plunge through the atmosphere, the capsule should release three parachutes and drift safely to the Texas desert.
That’s the best-case scenario. But Blue Origin has also practiced for the worst. The company has tested the capsule’s escape system three times — once on the launchpad, once in mid-air, and once in space.
For the first test, in 2012, the capsule launched itself away from a stand on the ground. That showed that it can escape accidents on the launchpad. Then in 2016, Blue Origin tested the system at a higher elevation. The capsule shot itself away from the rocket in mid-flight — “at its most stressing condition,” according to Lai.
In 2018, the company took the escape-system test into space. After the New Shepard rocket separated and began to fall away, the capsule immediately fired its boosters and pushed itself into Earth’s atmosphere, plunging back to the ground and opening its parachutes for a safe landing.
Presumably, this means that if the New Shepard rocket threatens to explode anywhere, the capsule should be able to carry its passengers to safety.
“The capsule is the most highly redundant and safe spaceflight system, we think, that has ever been designed or flown,” Lai said. “If a system fails, you have a backup system. And, in most cases, you have a backup to the backup system.”