With SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin all making giant leaps forward in space technology, we're in a boom time for commercial companies wanting to join the race to the stars. Blue Origin founder and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been outlining the company's plans in more detail, and says he wants the first manned test flights to take place during 2017.
Blue Origin has been running for 16 years and has managed to successfully launch and land its reusable rocket twice. It's had more success in this area than Elon Musk's SpaceX firm, though it's important to note that the two companies are using different types of rockets and aren't actually in direct competition. The next stage will be to add people.
Safety is a much bigger priority than being the first commercial company to get tourists into space, Bezos said, while giving the world's press a tour of Blue Origin's research and development site near Seattle. Around 600 people are based at the site, a former Boeing airplane parts facility.
"You can do the steps quickly, but you can't skip any steps," Bezos told The New York Times.
Bezos also specified 2018 as the year when he hoped Blue Origin space flights for tourists would take off for the first time (assuming all that testing in 2017 goes to plan). He said "thousands" of people had expressed an interest in buying a ticket to leave Earth's orbit, though his company isn't taking bookings yet (unlike Virgin Galactic).
Eventually, Blue Origin plans to make its money back through these ticket sales and by selling its high-tech equipment to other companies.
One engineer quoted by Yahoo News said the Amazon CEO was as knowledgeable as anyone else in the building about the technology the company is putting together, and a key goal for the future is making that technology reusable to bring costs down.
Bezos also talked about what he calls "the great inversion", where heavy mining, manufacturing, and spaceship-building will be done away from Earth, leaving our home planet as a residential space that can be much more in tune with nature than it is today. That's still a long way in the future, but it's one of the visionary aims that drives development in the here and now.
With energy use rising at 2-3 percent every year, Bezos asserts, we're eventually going to max out the amount of energy we can harvest from the Earth, the Sun, and other resources. Before that happens, we need to be colonising other parts of space, according to the entrepreneur.
For now, Bezos says Blue Origin is focusing on refining its rocket technology and getting those first test flights off the ground. He said that eventually as many as 100 suborbital flights could be run every year, launching from a site in West Texas.