Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket conducted its ninth test flight on Wednesday with a launch that pushed the vehicle to its limits – in order to satisfy safety parameters, whilst also carrying numerous payloads in the capsule. The launch from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas occurred at 15:11 UTC – with the test campaign now in the final leg ahead of carrying paying customers.
New Shepard is the first of a potential line of vehicles for Blue Origin. The rocket and crew capsule system is aimed at the suborbital tourism market, allowing paying customers to enjoy into a few minutes of zero-G flight prior to a parachute-assisted landing.
Claims in the media – which haven’t been verified by Blue Origin – note Jeff Bezos’s company is going to charge between $200,000 and $300,000 per ticket for the short suborbital flight.
The test campaign began in 2015, and despite the loss of the first booster, the second flight in November 2015 kick-started a successful run of test flights.
That second flight saw the New Shepard booster lofting its Crew Capsule to an altitude of 329,839 feet before returning under powered control to an upright landing – marking the first time a suborbital rocket successfully landed after a straight-up/straight-down flight.
By the seventh test, the campaign featured a new next-generation booster – powered by its BE-3 engine – and the first flight of Crew Capsule 2.0, a spacecraft that featured real windows, measuring 2.4 x 3.6 feet.
The test flight also carried 12 payloads and even a passenger – specifically an instrumented dummy brilliantly named “Mannequin Skywalker”.
The previous test flight, the eighth overall, saw the capsule reach 351,000 feet – making this a record flight altitude for the spacecraft.
These latest tests were also designed to push the booster to its limit, which led to Blue Origin noting the potential they could lose the booster, not least during the focused testing on the escape system, centered around a solid motor firing for two seconds to fly the capsule free of a failing booster.
However, all tests – from test 2 to test 8 – have seen the booster return for a safe pinpoint landing, followed shortly after by the capsule parachuting to a landing site nearby.
The testing on Flight 9 was also without any ill effects for the booster or spacecraft in that once again focused on the safety systems.
“We’ll be doing a high altitude escape motor test – pushing the rocket to its limits,” noted Blue Origin ahead of the test.
How this will differentiate from the previous safety test appeared to relate to the period of flight this firing took place and the duration after the booster and capsule had parted ways.
The risk was the abort solid impinging on the booster, sending it off course ahead of its return. However, the booster came back to land without any issues.
Numerous payloads flew in the spacecraft during the test, ranging from international customers, such as Thailand’s “mu Space-1” – which includes an assortment of scientific and medical items, several textile materials they plan to use on their future space suit and apparel, and other special articles for their community partners – through to a suite of payloads from Blue Origin employees as a part of their internal “Fly My Stuff” program.
Several NASA payloads rode along, such as SFEM-2 – which was first flown on Mission 8 of New Shepard, and collected additional data on Mission 9. The experiment recorded vehicle conditions including cabin pressure, temperature, CO2, acoustic conditions, and acceleration.
While testing with New Shepard continues, work on Blue Origin’s next vehicle, the New Glenn is pressing on, albeit mainly away from the attention of the media.
With the production facility at Exploration Park all-but ready to start producing New Glenn hardware, work is also now taking place on the LC-11 and LC-36 pad facilities from which the rocket will be tested and launched from.
LC-11 will be used to test fire New Glenn engines, while LC-36 will be the launch site for the orbital rocket that is being placed to take on other vehicles in its class, such as those from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.
Blue Origin continue to take 2020 for the maiden flight of the New Glenn rocket, which like its smaller sister New Shepard, will include a booster that will return for reuse.
Although Blue Origin is yet to provide details, it is understood the company has already purchased the first landing ship for returning New Glenn boosters.
Blue Origin is also expected to eventually add an even bigger rocket to its family, the Super Heavy vehicle called New Armstrong. However, that is not expected until deep into the 2020s.