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With not one but multiple crewed space missions surpassing the Kármán Line and safely returning to earth for future reuse, 2021 will go down as a landmark year for Blue Origin and its New Shepard rocket program. But given the competitive nature of the space industry today, comparisons abound between private space companies, and these accomplishments beg the question: can New Shepard reach orbit?

New Shepard can achieve an altitude of 62 miles (100 km) above the earth’s surface, which, by any definition, qualifies as reaching space. But it is a suborbital rocket platform, meaning that it can neither produce enough velocity to surpass the earth’s atmosphere nor can it achieve orbital speed.

With space tourism in mind, New Shepard is not designed or engineered to achieve the altitude and speed required to orbit the earth. But there is no denying the fact that the 62-mile apex of New Shepard’s trek into space falls well short of orbital flight. What does it mean to reach orbit and why can’t New Shepard achieve it? The answers are below, so read on.

Can New Shepard Reach Orbit

According to Blue Origin’s website, New Shepard is a revolutionary “reusable suborbital rocket system” that will be used to transport passengers and payloads past the imaginary, but also undeniably significant, line that demarcates the realm of space. 

With the primary objective of establishing space tourism as a sustainable revenue stream for Blue Origin, the New Shepard rocket program does not shy away from its vehicle’s limitations; rather, it touts the unique aspects, including a few precious moments of weightlessness while peering down at the earth’s curvature, that transforms the 11-minute journey into the experience of a lifetime.

But surpassing the Kármán Line is still only half of the necessary altitude and the velocity required to reach 62 miles above the earth’s surface pales in comparison to the minimum speed a space vehicle needs to achieve in order to orbit the planet.

What Does Reaching Orbit Mean?

When one considers what it means for an object to reach orbit, visions of satellites and the International Space Station encircling the earth come to mind. But there are specific criteria involved and they go far beyond simply going up really, really high. The other part of that equation is going really, really fast and that requires an almost unfathomable amount of thrust. 

The requirements for achieving orbital flight can be summarized thusly:

  • Just to reach an altitude of 125 miles above the earth surface but not orbit the planet (in other words, go up but then come back down), a space vehicle would need to travel around 3,700 mph (6,000 km/h)
  • In order to enter into orbit around the world at the same altitude of 125 miles up, a space vehicle would need to reach a speed of 17,400 mph (28,000 km/h)
  • The lowest altitude ever recorded for a satellite orbiting the earth is 104 miles (167.4 km)

By comparison, New Shepard has been clocked at a maximum speed of 2,234 mph (3,596 km/h) which enables it to eclipse 62 miles (100 km) above the earth before returning to the surface for future reuse. Setting aside the fact that New Shepard would need to travel roughly 40 miles higher, its maximum speed is roughly one-eighth of the velocity required to achieve orbital speed.

New Shepard Isn’t Built to Reach Orbit

To the untrained eye, any rocket is an impressive sight whether it is on the launchpad or streaking upward toward the heavens. The fact that New Shepard is not designed to reach orbit is, however, plainly evident from its physical attributes, including most notably:

  • As far as its profile, New Shepard has a thick, stout stature, which from an aerodynamics perspective, is not well suited for cutting through air resistance
  • The lower center of gravity afforded by New Shepard’s stockiness does, however, facilitate upright landings when the rocket booster returns back to earth
  • In contrast, SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is capable of reaching orbit, features a dramatically taller and narrower shape that dramatically reduces drag and allows the rocket to cut through the atmosphere and travel deeper into space
  • Whereas the Falcon 9 achieves 1.5 million pounds of thrust at maximum throttle to reach orbital speed, New Shepard manages 100,000 pounds of thrust 

Which is not to say that New Shepard is not a technological marvel. On the contrary, it is a shining example of a purpose-built 21st-century space vehicle that has been designed with a specific type of mission in mind; in this case, space tourism. And for this, there may be no better rocket to take passengers to the realm of space for the opportunity to experience suborbital space flight.

But New Shepard does Reach Space

While New Shepard falls significantly short of reaching orbit, it does travel to space. Definitions as to what constitutes space vary and this has certainly given rise to squabbling among private space companies as to whose spacecraft have actually traveled to space (and to what degree). These are the two most widely accepted demarcations of space:

  • According to NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the U.S. Air Force, an altitude of 50 miles (80 km) above the earth’s surface is the threshold of space
  • The Fédération Aéronautique Internationale considers 62 miles (100 km) as the boundary separating space and the realm considered part of the earth 

It is worth noting that the latter standard of 62 miles coincides with the Kármán Line, which is widely accepted as the proper measure of space and the criteria utilized by Blue Origin. By any measure, New Shepard is a bona fide space vehicle and one which is poised to revolutionize the concept of space travel.


The idea of one object orbiting another is nothing new as evidenced by the works of great scientists like Sir Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler centuries ago. But the concept today is viewed in the context of space travel and which private companies’ vehicles have the ability to reach orbital flight.

While Blue Origin’s New Shepard is limited to journeys just past the Kármán Line, it does so in spectacular (and soon to be regular) fashion, and for this feat alone, it has earned a place in history.