Blue Origin tests New Shepard capsule upgrades on NS-14 mission

by Thomas Burghardt

Blue Origin conducted flight 14 of the New Shepard rocket for Thursday, January 14.

Liftoff from Launch Site One in West Texas occurred at 11:17 CST (17:17 UTC) with the booster and capsule landing safely several minutes later.

The capsule on this flight featured new upgrades as Blue Origin progresses towards launching crewed missions. The environmental control system was upgraded for improved sound and temperature regulation, and new systems such as display panels, speakers, and push-to-talk microphones were added for future crews.

The NS-14 mission tested multiple communication and safety alert systems. While five of the six seats inside the capsule were empty, one was occupied by Mannequin Skywalker, Blue Origin’s test dummy.

The New Shepard vehicle has two parts: a crew capsule and a booster. The crew capsule is designed to carry tourists and/or researchers on suborbital spaceflight missions, surpassing both the American and international boundaries of space at 80 and 100 kilometers, respectively.

Included in the capsule component is the Crew Capsule Escape Solid Rocket Motor (CCE SRM), a solid fueled abort motor provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which was recently acquired by Lockheed Martin. The motor is activated in the event of an anomaly on the booster in order to protect any crew on board.

No firm timeline for the first crewed New Shepard mission is known. While Blue Origin continues uncrewed test flights, the capsule has hosted microgravity research payloads for NASA and other customers.

The capsule descends under parachutes and fires soft landing thrusters just before touching down in the Texas desert.

The booster is powered by a single Blue Origin BE-3 engine, fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. A pair of vacuum optimized BE-3s, named BE-3Us, will power the second stage of Blue Origin’s orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, set to debut as early as this year.

After liftoff, the booster performed a propulsive landing on a landing pad near the launch site. Both the booster and the capsule are reusable, providing a suborbital, low cost alternative to orbital research missions and space tourism offerings.

In addition to hosting research payloads and, soon, humans, the New Shepard vehicle is a testbed for reuse and propulsive landing technologies, aiding New Glenn and Blue Moon development.

Blue Moon is the company’s lunar lander design, a variant of which serves as the descent element of the multi-stage Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) being offered to NASA’s Artemis Human Landing System program. The ILV is a collaboration between Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

Recovery teams work on the New Shepard capsule following the NS-10 mission – via Blue Origin

New Shepard debuted in 2015, with the first and only flight of New Shepard 1 (NS1). The NS1 booster failed to land successfully due to a hydraulic failure, and NS-1 remains the only mission where the booster failed to land.

The New Shepard 2 vehicle debuted later in 2015 and was the first vehicle to land successfully on the NS-2 mission. NS2 flew four more times in 2016, culminating in an in-flight abort test on the NS-6 mission. The NS2 vehicle is now retired and on display in the lobby of the New Glenn factory in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

New Shepard 3 debuted in 2017, flew twice more in 2018 (including another in-flight abort test on the NS-9 flight), flew three times in 2019, and once in 2020. Multiple NS3 flights carried microgravity research payloads. The previous mission, NS-13, tested a lunar landing technology suite for NASA’s Artemis program.

The NS-14 mission debuted the New Shepard 4 booster, the vehicle which will fly Blue Origin’s first crewed mission. Use of this booster was confirmed by Blue Origin during the webcast for the mission.

A New Shepard flight begins with a liftoff and vertical ascent. About two and a half minutes after liftoff, the BE-3 engine shuts down, and shortly after, the capsule separates from the booster. Both vehicles continue to coast upwards towards space until about four minutes after launch.

The New Shepard 2 booster landing at the conclusion of the NS-5 mission – via Blue Origin

The first of the two components to return to Earth is the booster. First, a set of wedge fins deploy to guide the booster towards the landing site. Second, a set of drag brakes slow the vehicle down to a lower terminal velocity.

Less than 30 seconds before landing, the BE-3 engine restarts, firing retrograde to slow the booster to about 2 meters per second (m/s).

During the landing burn, four landing legs deploy, and the booster then touches down on the landing pad to be prepared for its next flight.

Meanwhile, the capsule deploys a set of drogue and then main parachutes to slow to about 7 m/s. Just before landing, a set of soft landing thrusters similar to those used by the Soyuz crew spacecraft fire. Teams then recover the capsule for reuse and remove the on board payloads for post-flight processing.

Lead image via Blue Origin

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