To space and back - within minutes

In Blue Origin's flights, six passengers will take their place in a capsule at the top of the New Shepard rocket (above), which detaches after the rocket is launched. During a few minutes of weightlessness, they can take in the view before returning
In Blue Origin's flights, six passengers will take their place in a capsule at the top of the New Shepard rocket (above), which detaches after the rocket is launched. During a few minutes of weightlessness, they can take in the view before returning to Earth.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

WASHINGTON • The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights - though neither has set a firm date.

Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests - with both firms using different technology.

Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin's passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth. Instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It is an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station in the 2000s.

Having paid for a much cheaper ticket - US$250,000 (S$342,000) with Virgin, and the price as yet unknown with Blue Origin - the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth.

With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots will board SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.

It will be attached to a carrier spacecraft, the WhiteKnight, from which it will then detach at around 15,000m. Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky. Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before returning to Earth.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.

Six passengers will take their place in a "capsule" fixed to the top of an 18m-long rocket.

After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles towards the sky. After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to Earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2018, with the headline 'To space and back - within minutes'. Print Edition | Subscribe