Select Page

2021 has been a historic year for Blue Origin. Its New Shepard rocket program shuttled Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos past the accepted boundary of space and then followed this maiden crewed mission with another one a few months later. Much has been made about the reusable aspect of New Shepard rockets but one detail that has been somewhat obscured by all the hoopla is who flies the spacecraft.

New Shepard is a fully autonomous space vehicle meaning that there is no pilot on board for any of its missions. Flight elements like the launch, separation of the capsule from the rocket booster, and return of both the capsule and the booster back to earth, are all handled by onboard computers.

Since there is no pilot on board the spacecraft, every person seated in the New Shepard capsule during the mission is a passenger. Blue Origin touts the highly advanced and thoroughly tested safety features of its vehicles, but pilotless space flight is not the only unconventional practice that Blue Origin has adopted in its quest to make space travel more accessible and mainstream. Read on to learn more.

Does New Shepard Have a Pilot

According to the Blue Origin website, the New Shepard rocket is “fully autonomous” and each “person onboard is a passenger – there are no pilots”. In fact, not only is each New Shepard mission pilotless, there are no flight controls onboard for a person to interface with, nor is there ground control on earth that can step in and take control of the vehicle.

All flight control duties are handled by New Shepard’s onboard computers, including these key aspects:

  • The vertical launch and ascent to roughly 62 miles above the earth’s surface (the so-called Kármán Line)
  • As the vehicle approaches the apex of its flight, the capsule separates from the booster rocket and as it drifts upward, its passengers experience roughly three minutes of weightlessness
  • When the capsule begins its descent, parachutes deploy to ensure a safe landing
  • Meanwhile, the main engine on the booster fires in a controlled burn to gently land the reusable rocket

It therefore seems that New Shepard passengers are indeed space tourists in the truest sense, with seemingly no responsibilities aside from unstrapping themselves from their seats at the flight’s apex in order to experience weightlessness while taking in the breathtaking views of the earth below and then buckling themselves back in for the return journey.

As shocking though this may seem, that onboard computers alone bear all the responsibility for the lives of New Shepard passengers, there are several key aspects to Blue Origin’s space tourism missions that make autonomous space flight viable:

  • At approximately 11 minutes in duration, a typical New Shepard mission is relatively short, meaning less time for something to go wrong
  • New Shepard is a suborbital rocket, meaning that it is engineered only to take passengers to the edge of space, roughly 62 miles (100 km) above the earth’s surface
  • As such, its engine is not capable of generating the thrust (nor the speed) necessary to reach orbit (in other words, New Shepard travels much slower than an orbital rocket)
  • Traveling at a slower speed means that New Shepard is also easier to control

Not only is Blue Origin spawning the concept of space tourism, but in the process, it is revolutionizing space travel with fully autonomous missions to the edge of space.

Do New Shepard Passengers Receive any Training at All?

In order to comply with requirements established by the Federal Aviation Administration, all passengers on New Shepard space flights must undergo formal training of certain in-flight procedures. For New Shepard’s maiden crewed flight, which famously included founder Jeff Bezos on its manifest, each passenger received roughly 14 hours (yes, you read that right) of training prior to launch. 

These are some of the highlights of New Shepard’s two-day passenger training program:

  • The 14 hours of training are allocated to classroom instruction, live demonstrations, and time spent in a mock capsule 
  • Zero-gravity seat egress (i.e., unbuckling the harness and getting out of the seat) and ingress (getting back in and properly buckled)
  • Emergency procedures, including escape from the capsule, fire suppression techniques, and putting on special breathing apparatus 
  • Mission rehearsals (five different scenarios are covered)
  • A final exam is administered to all passengers at the conclusion of their training

Although Blue Origin management is confident that its training program adequately educates passengers on certain procedures and safety measures, it is more than happy to admit that nothing can prepare them for the life-changing experience that awaits them 62 miles up.

What do New Shepard Passengers Wear?

In keeping with Blue Origin’s outside-the-box, avant-garde approach towards space travel, not only are New Shepard missions completely autonomous and pilotless, but passengers aboard New Shepard missions also do not wear pressurized space suits, donning instead, blue jumpsuits.

According to Blue Origin, because the capsule cabin is pressurized, wearing formal space suits would be redundant. However, it is worth noting that virtually all orbital space missions have required that astronauts wear spacesuits as a backup in the event that the cabin becomes depressurized. 

Final Thoughts

The privatization of the space industry by forward-thinking companies like Blue Origin has transformed space travel. The fact that space tourism has become a reality is a major milestone but not to be lost in all the hoopla are the incredible technological advances that allow completely autonomous vehicles to carry passengers to the edge of space.