Blue Origin capsule successfully pad aborts via pusher-escape system

by Chris Bergin

Although no longer a leading contender to fly NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Blue Origin are successfully concluding their Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev-2) milestones, marked by a firing of their BE-3 engine and the visually dramatic sight of their capsule conducting a pad abort test via their unique pusher-escape motor system.

Blue Origin:

At the center of Blue Origin’s human space flight ambitions is their biconic-shape capsule, which was initially targeted to launch with the Atlas V launch vehicle, prior to hitching a lift uphill via its own Reusable Booster System (RBS).

The vehicle is capable of carrying seven passengers – with an ability for cargo runs – to the ISS, and will be available for independent commercial flights for science, adventure and trips to other orbital destinations.

It is also capable of a 210 day ISS lifeboat role, something Orion (MPCV) was going to be tasked with during its dark days surrounding the cancellation of the Constellation Program (CxP), prior to being re-promoted as a Beyond Earth Object (BEO) vehicle by NASA.

The Blue Origin vehicle has mostly shunned the public limelight, although some details on the key development milestones have been made public via the CCDev-2 process, relating to the Space Vehicle Mission Concept Review and Pusher Escape Test Vehicle shipment.

However, Blue Origin did receive a set-back on August 24 in Texas, when an in-flight failure of their second test vehicle – known as the Vertical-Takeoff, Vertical-Landing (VTVL) test vehicle was suffered at 45,000 feet/Mach 1.2, caused by flight instability triggering the range safety system and shut down the vehicle’s engines.

Originally, the Pusher Escape Pad Escape Test was scheduled for April, 2012, followed by the Systems Requirement Review (SRR) in May. As such, the successful pad abort test shows a six month schedule slip to Blue Origin’s original milestones.

The good news is Blue Origin are now finalizing their CCDev-2 work, marked by the completion of their SRR, an overview where engineers and technical experts representing NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and the company assessed the spacecraft’s ability to meet safety and mission requirements to low-Earth orbit.

That review also included results from more than 100 wind tunnel tests of the vehicle’s aerodynamic design, stability during flight and cross-range maneuverability.

The successful Pad Escape test was conducted last week at its West Texas launch site, firing its pusher escape motor and launching a full-scale suborbital Crew Capsule from a launch vehicle simulator. The Crew Capsule traveled to an altitude of 2,307 feet under active thrust vector control before descending safely by parachute to a soft landing 1,630 feet downrange.

Blue Origin’s pusher escape system has been designed and developed to allow full-envelope crew escape in the event of an emergency on ascent for its suborbital New Shepard system. As part of an incremental development program, the results of this test will inform the design of the escape system for its orbital Space Vehicle.

“The use of a pusher configuration marks a significant departure from the traditional towed-tractor escape tower concepts of Mercury and Apollo,” said Rob Meyerson, president and program manager of Blue Origin. “Providing crew escape without the need to jettison the unused escape system gets us closer to our goal of safe and affordable human spaceflight.”

Traditional tractor escape systems are not compatible with reuse, giving Blue Origin an edge, given its pusher escape system is a key enabler of full-vehicle reusability, as well as improving the safety of human access to space. SpaceX’s Dragon is also targeting full reusability with its Draco-thruster based system.

“The first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule is a big step on the way to safe, affordable space travel,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “This wouldn’t have been possible without NASA’s help, and the Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to design this system, build it, and pull off this test.”

NASA’s release on the successful test noted their continued effort to “foster the development of a US commercial crew space transportation capability with the goal of achieving safe, reliable and cost-effective access..” However, Blue Origin will not receive any more NASA money at their conclusion of their CCDev-2 efforts.

That decision was made back in August via the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCap) awards, with NASA managers deciding to push forward with SpaceX and their Falcon 9/Dragon duo, along with Boeing’s CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser – the latter two both set to launch with United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V.

However, the money has not been wasted on Blue Origin, as they will mature to a specific point of development, even if the lack of NASA funding slows down their forward plans. As such, should the worst case scenario occur with any of the leading CCiCAP, the Agency could effectively call on Blue Origin to pick up the slack.

“The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight,” CCP Manager Ed Mango said. “It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight.”

And that level of maturity also relates to their own launch vehicle, past any use of the Atlas V, as Blue Origin successfully fired the thrust chamber assembly for its new 100,000 pound thrust BE-3 liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen rocket
engine recently.

As part of Blue’s Reusable Booster System (RBS), the engines are designed eventually to launch the biconic-shaped Space Vehicle the company is developing.

“Blue Origin continues to be extremely innovative as it develops a crew-capable vehicle for suborbital and orbital flights,” added Mr Mango. “We’re thrilled the company’s engine test fire was met with success.”

The test took place early this month on the E-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. Blue Origin engineers successfully completed the test by powering the thrust chamber to its full power level.

“We are very excited to have demonstrated a new class of high-performance hydrogen engines,” added Blue Origin’s Mr Meyerson. “Access to the Stennis test facility and its talented operations team was instrumental in conducting full-power testing of this new thrust chamber.”

(Images: Blue Origin and SNC)

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