In the past, scientists wanting to study something in a weightless environment had other methods, but they all had drawbacks. They could drop an object off a tower, offering a few seconds of zero gravity or put an experiment on an airplane flying a path of an object in free fall, which provided about 20 seconds of floating.
The luckiest experimenters could endeavor to be selected among the few projects sent to orbit, first on the space shuttle and now to the International Space Station.
Vehicles known as sounding rockets also headed to about the same altitude as New Shepard goes, but because they flew only once, they were much more expensive. Tuesday’s New Shepard vehicle has launched and landed seven times.
With the new suborbital vehicles that fly repeatedly, the price of getting to space is much lower for NASA as well as for academic and private scientists.
The most popular option, Mr. Smith said, is what Blue Origin calls a single storage locker. “That starts around $100,000 for about 25 pounds and something the size of, let’s say, a microwave,” he said. “But we also have many payloads that we use with students that go as low as $8,000.”
The suborbital research is a also sign that Blue Origin is making a turn to becoming a profitable business as it prepares to sell tickets to space tourists. It has yet to announce a date or price for those flights.
“It’s been a lot of growth in facilities personnel actually trying to understand how do we run this much more like a business as opposed to a research organization,” Mr. Smith said. “We’ve also gone from virtually zero revenue to now making hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue annually.”
The company has competition for the market of sending experiments to space. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which also plans to send space tourists on suborbital jaunts, has been flying experiments during its test flights. One from University of Florida scientists, for example, tested imaging technologies that capture the reaction of plants — what genes are turned on and off — to the stresses of spaceflight. (The same scientists had another iteration of the experiment aboard Tuesday’s Blue Origin flight.)
Virgin Galactic’s space plane, known as SpaceShipTwo, is flown by two pilots, so it has carried people to space, but it will not fly paying passengers until next year.
“The whole view of using these vehicles for research purposes has moved into the mainstream, and NASA has now been funding a lot of that kind of work.” said S. Alan Stern, associate vice president of the space science and engineering division at Southwest Research Institute who has been selected by NASA to accompany his research on a future Virgin Galactic flight.
Dr. Stern will operate a lowlight camera, used previously on the space shuttle, to test how well SpaceShipTwo can be used for astronomical observations.