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Blue Origin virtual-reality capsule exhibit opens at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Orange flames began billowing below the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket capsule, which slowly ascended with shaking seats above the arid, brown West Texas desert stretching across the horizon outside the window.

"We have liftoff. New Shepard has cleared the tower," a voice announced.

This immersive, colorful first-person scene unfolds within a pair of white goggles inside a replica six-astronaut capsule now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Billed as Blue Origin's first permanent exhibit, the crew capsule is the tourist attraction's "first immersive virtual reality experience of a currently operational spacecraft."

"You're going to feel some rumbling. We've got some shakers installed in the seats to help replicate a little bit of the feeling of launch, the rumbling of the sound," Barret Schlegelmilch, a Blue Origin astronaut trainer, told a handful of reporters and photographers inside the capsule after they donned VR goggles for the four-minute simulated launch.

KSC Visitor Complex Chief Operating Officer Therrin Protze said the New Shepard exhibit took three years of behind-the-scenes planning.

"With the exciting Space Coast future, the visitor complex wants to match that. Highlighting all the companies coming in this area — I mean, it's truly becoming a domestic space race," Protze said, standing near the white capsule.

"We're happy to showcase it," he said.

The Blue Origin exhibit opened to the public Friday inside the "Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex" building. The capsule is displayed alongside the NASA Orion Test-1 capsule, which launched in December 2014 from Cape Canaveral. Above, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster that flew in 2016 and 2018 hangs suspended from the ceiling.

A peek inside Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
A peek inside Blue Origin's New Shepard crew capsule at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Blue and white LED lighting illuminates the New Shepard capsule interior, where six black flight seats with padded headrests position visitors in a nearly horizontal position.

The four-minute VR experience also shows how the capsule returns to Earth via parachutes, slowing from 300 mph (the speed of a bullet train) down to 16 mph (the speed of a bicycle ride.)

In a press release, Blue Origin officials described the exhibit as "an immersive virtual reality experience inside a replica of the New Shepard crew capsule that uses actual data and imagery to authentically mimic the rocket’s journey above the Kármán Line, the internationally-recognized boundary of space."

August 2022 story: Astronaut! Brevard's Steve Young flies into space aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket

In August 2022, Indialantic resident Steve Young traveled to Texas and flew into space aboard an autonomous New Shepard capsule on Blue Origin's NS-22 mission. Young and five fellow "space tourist" suborbital passengers ascended past the 100-kilometer Kármán Line and floated in microgravity for a few minutes before the capsule performed a parachute landing in the desert outside Van Horn, Texas.

Young's mission into space lasted 10 minutes, 20 seconds — and the rocket reached a top ascent velocity of 2,239 mph, Blue Origin reported. He is is the former CEO of Y-Com, and he built and opened Pineapples in April 2021 in downtown Eau Gallie.

The following month, Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket suffered an anomaly after launching from its West Texas launch pad during an uncrewed research mission. The rocket's emergency abort system kicked in, igniting the capsule's engine and propelling it away from the booster.

New Shepard has not launched since that September 2022 mishap. Schlegelmilch said Blue Origin will resume flights soon. He did not disclose further details.

Blue Origin to fly postcards into space

Blue Origin debuts its New Shepard crew capsule exhibit Friday at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Blue Origin debuts its New Shepard crew capsule exhibit Friday at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Outside the crew capsule, lines of children and adults used a rainbow of colored pencils Friday to fill out and decorate white postcards bound for space.

Blue Origin will later load these postcards into a capsule, launch them on a future mission, stamp them "flown to space," and mail them as keepsakes. A mailbox kiosk is available for KSC Visitor Complex guests to send postcards to space.

"This can inspire that next generation to create their own postcards. Really hits that 'a' in STEAM. They'll send them up to space, and they'll send them back. That's pretty amazing," Protze said.

Barret Schlegelmilch, a Blue Origin astronaut trainer nicknamed CrewMember 7, sits inside the New Shepard crew capsule virtual reality exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.
Barret Schlegelmilch, a Blue Origin astronaut trainer nicknamed CrewMember 7, sits inside the New Shepard crew capsule virtual reality exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

Rick Neale is a Space Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter/X: @RickNeale1

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This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Blue Origin New Shepard VR capsule exhibit opens at KSC Visitor Complex

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