Blue Origin launches first crewed flight with four crew, including founder Jeff Bezos and “Mercury 13” aviatrix Wally Funk

by Justin Davenport

Blue Origin has flown a crew of four onboard a New Shepard rocket on an 11-minute long suborbital spaceflight. It was the first time humans fly onboard the vehicle, making its sixteenth flight since its debut in April 2015.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark were aboard the crew capsule for the flight, along with 82-year old Wally Funk, who is an accomplished female pilot, instructor, and air accident investigator, and a member of what was unofficially known as the “Mercury 13”, a group of women that passed the same physiological tests to become an astronaut that the male “Mercury 7″ did.

While Wally Funk became the oldest person ever in space, surpassing John Glenn at age 77, she was joined by the youngest person ever in space. 18-year old Oliver Daemen, the son of the second-highest bidder in the auction for a seat on this flight, joining the NS-16 crew after the winning bidder (with a $28 million bid) chose to take a later flight, citing “schedule conflicts.”

New Shepard flight NS-16 launched from Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility on the Corn Ranch, a large property purchased by Jeff Bezos, in the desert near Van Horn, Texas.

The Van Horn launch facility is the first entirely private space launch complex to host a crewed flight, compared to Spaceport America, which received hundreds of millions of dollars in funding from the state of New Mexico before supporting SpaceShipTwo flights. The NS-16 mission also flew the first-ever paying suborbital space tourist, although paying tourists have flown aboard Soyuz missions to the International Space Station.

The four NS-16 crewmembers stayed in the astronaut village near the launch facility and underwent two days of training before their flight. They were trained on everything they need to know to fly aboard New Shepard, including procedures for off-nominal and emergency situations and how to use emergency equipment.

The New Shepard capsule can accommodate six people, but for this flight, only four flew. The Blue Origin hospitality team hosted the Bezos brothers, Wally Funk, Oliver Daemen, and two “Crewmember 7” employees (so named to help the normal crew of six) assigned to the NS-16 crew to assist them.

The booster, known as Tail 4, was filled with cryogenic liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen at T-3 hours before launch, and the crew boarded the capsule 45 minutes before liftoff. The Crewmember 7 employees stayed on the ground to assist the four crew members during boarding and the flight, and the countdown proceeded with systems checks and then crew arm retraction around T-2 minutes.

The New Shepard’s single BE-3 engine, capable of up to 110,000 lbs of thrust, ignited at T-0, and the launch restraints were released at T+6 seconds. New Shepard climbed vertically and reached Max Q at T+1 minute and 28,000 feet altitude, and the BE-3 cut off at T+2:20, at 178,000 feet altitude and a speed of Mach 3.

New Shepard lifts off on the NS-15 mission – via Jack Beyer for NSF.

The New Shepard capsule and booster coasted together until capsule separation around T+3 minutes. The capsule passed the Karman line at 100 kilometers around T+3:45 and reached apogee about 20 seconds later. The NS-16 crew had a view of space and Earth through six large windows, able to float in the cabin and experience approximately four minutes of microgravity before they needed to be in their seats for re-entry.

The booster and capsule travel slowly enough to not need an extensive amount of heat shielding as an orbital spacecraft would. After deploying its ring and wedge fins at the top of the stage, the booster relit its engine, which can deep throttle to 20 percent of its rated power, deploy its landing gear, and hover over its landing pad before touching down around the T+7:30 mark.

The capsule with the NS-16 crew deployed its three drogue chutes around 5,000 feet altitude, and the main chutes deployed around the T+8:45 mark at 2,500 feet. The capsule touched down at a speed of around 16 miles per hour on the desert floor around the T+10:30 mark after firing a small retrorocket, in a manner similar to the Soyuz capsule before its landing, to cushion the impact of the touchdown.

The NS-16 crew was retrieved after a crew drove to the touchdown site and opened the hatch on the capsule. Family members of the crew were driven to the touchdown site as well to greet the new spacefarers. The recovery crew began the process of safing the capsule before it. The booster is recovered and prepared for its next flight, which Blue Origin hopes will be in the September/October timeframe, as part of its plan to fly two more New Shepard missions in 2021.

New Shepard Tail 4 after landing during the NS-15 mission – via Blue Origin

After fifteen successful uncrewed tests of the New Shepard crew capsule and fourteen successful landings of the New Shepard booster, on May 5th, the 60th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s flight into space, Blue Origin announced that flight NS-16 would launch six crewmembers on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

The announcement of the first human flight of New Shepard was at least fifteen years in the making. Blue Origin was founded in 2000 by Amazon founder and then-CEO Jeff Bezos, who stated that he wanted to see millions of people living and working in space. New Shepard development started in 2006 and proceeded with the usual delays and challenges inherent in spaceflight projects.

In 2012 the New Shepard program successfully completed a pad abort test, and test flights of the fully reusable capsule/booster combination began in the spring of 2015. The first flight successfully flew the capsule, but the booster crashed on landing.

After rework, the second booster, called Tail 2, successfully made test flights in 2015 and 2016, with the capsule going over the FAI’s Karman line at 100 kilometers, marking its designation of space. Tail 2’s last test flight in late 2016 successfully tested the in-flight abort capability of the vehicle, igniting a solid rocket motor placed in the center of the capsule, extending from the floor of the crew cabin to the bottom of the capsule.

Tail 2 was retired and moved to Blue Origin’s orbital launch system factory at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it stands in the lobby. The next booster, Tail 3, successfully launched on December 12, 2017, along with crew capsule version 2.0, which flew with windows for the first time. Later missions with Tail 3 included flying the instrumented “Mannequin Skywalker” and a number of NASA and commercial experiments and a landing system test for the Artemis program. A successful high altitude abort test was performed as well.

Jeff Bezos and others inspect the New Shepard Capsule 2.0 following the NS-7 mission – via Blue Origin.

While one booster/capsule combination would remain dedicated for payloads, Tail 4 would become the first New Shepard booster (known as the Propulsion Module) that would be rated for human flight, and the first fully equipped crew capsule that could make tourist flights was built alongside this vehicle. Its first flight was on January 14.

Tail 4 launched again on April 14, on mission NS-15, which was a dress rehearsal for Tuesday’s crewed flight. Four Blue Origin employees began the boarding process, and two of them boarded the crew capsule during the countdown before leaving the ship a few minutes later. NS-15 successfully launched to an altitude of 348,000 feet (106 kilometers) before the booster and capsule touched down successfully. Next, employees performed an ingress and egress test on the capsule as it lay on the desert floor.

Three weeks after the NS-15 flight, the crewed NS-16 mission was announced, and Jeff and Mark Bezos were announced as two of the crewmembers who would fly to space. One of the seats was auctioned off afterward, and Wally Funk was named as a crewmember in the meantime as an honored guest of Jeff Bezos.

As the time for the flight drew closer, Sir Richard Branson announced that he was moving up his own flight to space to July 11 onboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which was successfully completed.

The “billionaire space race” has drawn headlines and controversy. However, Wally Funk’s inclusion in this flight marked a journey to space that has been sixty years in the making. In 1961, the flight instructor volunteered for the “Women in Space” program that was privately funded by aviatrix Jackie Cochran’s husband and run by Dr. William Lovelace, who had developed the physical and psychological tests that the “Mercury 7” astronauts had completed.

Dr. Lovelace wanted to know if women could function as astronauts. So he invited 25 women to his clinic in New Mexico to take the same tests that the Mercury 7 astronauts did. Twenty women pilots ended up taking the Phase I physical tests, and thirteen of them passed, including the first female instructor pilot to operate at a military base, one Mary Wallace “Wally” Funk. In addition, the women scored better in a number of areas than the men who had taken these same tests.

Three of the women, Funk, Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, and Rhea Hurrle, made their way to Oklahoma City for Phase II psychological and isolation tank testing. Cobb also passed the Phase III advanced exams using military equipment and jet aircraft and scored in the top two percent of anyone who had taken all three phases regardless of gender. However, just before Funk and the others were to take part in Phase III tests, the US Navy denied Dr. Lovelace access to the program at the naval air station in Pensacola, Florida.

Dr. Lovelace was forced to cancel the experiment, dubbed First Lady Astronaut Trainees, as he had run all of the tests he could with his own facilities. Some of the trainees lobbied Congress to allow women into the NASA program, and hearings were conducted, but NASA was unwilling to induct women into the program. Cochran herself lobbied against reinstating the program for reasons that are not entirely clear, and the Moon race had started in earnest, so NASA’s focus was elsewhere.

The social climate at the time in the US was not conducive to allowing Wally Funk to fulfill her dream of going into space, and it would be a generation before Sally Ride flew on STS-7. In the 1990s, most of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees finally met for the first time as they had not been able to train as a group, and they were then dubbed the “Mercury 13.” Now one of their numbers is on the verge of going to space, at least for a few minutes.

The New Shepard NS-16 flight, along with the Unity 22 flight earlier this month, finally marks the beginning of suborbital space tourist flights from U.S. soil, flights that have been promised since the turn of the century, and promise to finally expand the possibility of spaceflight to many that have not yet been able to experience the “overview effect” of seeing Earth from space.

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