Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos speaks in front of his company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle on display at the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 5. Bezos said the company still plans to start flying people on suborbital space tourism flights by the end of 2018, although the company has yet to start selling tickets or even setting a ticket price. Development of New Shepard, he said, is informing the company's plans for an orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, that will use the same BE-4 engines that United Launch Alliance is considering for its Vulcan rocket. Credit: Chuck Bigger for SpaceNews

NEW YORK — As Blue Origin prepares to start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, the company’s founder says the altitude the vehicle can reach will put it at an advantage over Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

In an on-stage interview with SpaceNews during a Wings Club luncheon here Feb. 20, Jeff Bezos reiterated statements made by other Blue Origin executives that the company expects to start flying people on New Shepard later this year.

“This is the first time that I’ve ever been saying ‘this year,’” he said of those plans. “For a few years I’ve been saying ‘next year.’”

New Shepard has been going through a flight test program without people on board, including its most recent flight, NS-10, Jan. 23. That test program is “going really well,” he said, citing such milestones as testing of the escape system for the vehicle’s crew capsule. “We’ve tested all the envelope for escape. It’s one of the most complicated things that we’ve done.”

As Blue Origin prepares to start flying people on New Shepard, Virgin Galactic is also edging closer to commercial flights of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle. The latest test of the suborbital spaceplane, scheduled for Feb. 20 from Mojave Air and Space Port, was postponed because of winds. The company said it will try again Feb. 22.

Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings.

“One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”

Bezos emphasized in his remarks that while “we’re in very good shape” in the New Shepard development program, he’s not driven by schedule. “I do keep reminding the team — I’m relentless on this — that it’s not a race,” he said. “I want to fly this year with humans, but we will fly when we’re ready.”

In an interview that also touched on the company’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and the BE-4 engine that will power it, Bezos explained how New Shepard will fit into that overall development plan.

“The strategic objective of New Shepard is to practice,” he said. “A lot of the subcomponents of New Shepard actually get directly reused on the second stage of New Glenn.” That includes, he noted, a variant of New Shepard’s BE-3 engine that will be used on the second stage of New Glenn.

“All of those systems will get a tremendous amount of practice with that suborbital mission and will be carried over directly to the upper stage” of New Glenn, he said. “The lessons learned on things like landings and operability and reusability, all those things from the New Shepard program, those also get incorporated into the New Glenn booster.”

He also tied New Shepard to the early barnstorming era of aviation, where such flights built up expertise to allow the aviation industry to grow in the early 20th century. “That’s going to be our barnstorming,” he said of New Shepard.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...