Blue Origin’s New Shepard conducts first test flight

by Chris Bergin

Blue Origin has conducted a test flight of its New Shepard suborbital system. Aimed at the space tourism market, the BE-3 engine-driven rocket lofted its capsule to Mach 3 and its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet. Attempts to recover the booster – which is designed to be reusable – were unsuccessful, although tweaks to the hydraulic system are already planned for the next test flights.

Blue Origin:

Owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin are one of the more “media shy” aerospace companies, rarely providing updates on their development goals.

However, Blue Origin’s human space flight ambitions have been known for some time, including work with NASA under an unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) during the Commercial Crew drive.

Via this arrangement, Blue Origin tapped into the experience and expertise of the NASA teams, in turn pushing forward its own aspirations.

During this period, Blue Origin developed a 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).

While the big money was initially provided to SNC and its Dream Chaser vehicle, along with SpaceX and Boeing, NASA is now only funding CST-100 and Dragon as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) program.

Although the impact on SNC has been noticeable, Blue Origin appear to be advancing on several fronts.

Announcing a deal with the United Launch Alliance (ULA) for the development of the BE-4 engine, Blue Origin will become deeply involved with flagship missions on the Vulcan launch vehicle while the company is also looking at sites for a large production facility on the Space Coast.

2015-04-30-142948However, the test launch of its New Shepard – announced via highly produced videos – is also a major step forward for the company.

The test involved a booster – utilizing its variable-throttle BE-3 engine – that is designed to mirror the goals of SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine, with the role of launching uphill, before conducting a propulsive return, enabling the commercially attractive aspiration of reuse on future missions.

The BE-3 – which has undergone a large amount of testing, including runs on the E-1 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center – may also be sold to commercial companies as a potential upper stage option.

The test flight of New Shepard, from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, resulted in a successful lofting of its capsule to 307,000 feet.

2015-04-30-143111“We flew the first developmental test flight of our New Shepard space vehicle. Our 110,000-lbf thrust liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine worked flawlessly, powering New Shepard through Mach 3 to its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet,” noted Mr. Bezos via a press release early on Friday.

“Guidance, navigation and control was nominal throughout max Q and all of ascent. The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect. Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return.”

2015-04-30-145443Blue Origin plans to launch tourists – and/or suborbital science payloads – on a flight that will last up to 15 minutes and result in several minutes of micro-G.

The capsule also sports its own “pusher” abort system, which has already has a large development path behind it, after undergoing a Systems Requirement Review (SRR) back in May, 2012.

The video footage from the test flight showed the key events proceeded nominally, although the additional goal of returning the booster for a touchdown was a failure during this first attempt.

2015-04-30-143155“If New Shepard had been a traditional expendable vehicle, this would have been a flawless first test flight,” added Mr. Bezos. “Of course one of our goals is reusability, and unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent.

“Fortunately, we’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system. Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we’ll be ready to fly again soon.”

While that next attempt will include a fine-tuned attempt of landing the booster, Blue Origin is already eyeing an evolution of its technology, with a marriage of its BE-4 engine – that it is developing for ULA – on a launch vehicle of its own.

“We continue to be big fans of the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture. We chose VTVL because it’s scalable to very large size,” Mr. Bezos continued.

“We’re already designing New Shepard’s sibling, her Very Big Brother – an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard’s size and is powered by our 550,000-lbf thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine.”

(Images via Blue Origin).

Related Articles