Blue Origin’s New Shepard returns to flight

by Harry Stranger

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is returned to flight on Dec. 19, 2023, from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

This mission followed a failure during the last New Shepard mission, NS-23, on Sept. 12, 2023. The NS-24 mission lifted off from Launch Site One carrying 33 science and research payloads as well as 38,000 postcards for the company’s Club for the Future foundation.

NS-23 Failure and Investigation

During the uncrewed flight of NS-23, New Shepard’s BE-3PM engine nozzle suffered a thermo-structural failure which led to the capsule firing its launch abort system shortly after Max-Q. The New Shepard capsule safely escaped the booster as intended and made a soft landing under its three main parachutes nearby.

The booster, known as Tail 3, was lost when it commanded the engine to be shut down as part of the response to the Crew Capsule escape. It then impacted the ground one kilometer east of the launch pad. This was the first failure of a New Shepard booster since the first mission in 2015 where Tail 1 crashed during descent after losing hydraulic pressure.

Following the failure, Blue Origin formed a Mishap Investigation Team (MIT) led by members of Blue Origin’s Safety & Mission Assurance organization. In the days following the launch, the MIT recovered all critical flight hardware from the area surrounding the launch site.

A nozzle fragment on the ground at Launch Site One following the failure. (Source: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin began testing BE-3PM engines immediately following the incident to assist in the investigation. During the investigation, the MIT was able to determine that the cause of the failure was structural fatigue on the BE-3PM nozzle during flight.

The fatigue was found to be caused by thermal damage and hot streaks from increased operating temperatures. A change made to the boundary layer cooling system of the engine led to an increase in nozzle heating and the present hot streaks.

Since the investigation, Blue Origin has been working to implement corrective actions to the BE-3PM’s combustion chamber and operating parameters, as well as design changes to improve the structure performance of the nozzle under dynamic and thermal loads.

A BE-3 engine going through testing at Corn Ranch. (Credit: Blue Origin)

New Shepard Mission Overview

Named in honor of the first American to fly into space, astronaut Alan Shepard, New Shepard is Blue Origin’s reusable suborbital rocket system which was designed to carry both humans and research payloads past 100 kilometers in altitude, and safely return them to Earth during a 10-minute flight. The New Shepard vehicle consists of a Propulsion Module and a Crew Capsule. When stacked, the vehicle stands approximately 18 meters tall and 3.6 meters in diameter.

The Crew Capsule can be configured to support dedicated crewed missions, dedicated payload missions, as well as human-tended payload missions. The capsule is equipped with a solid rocket motor which can be used in the case of an in-flight abort to safely push the Crew Capsule away from the Propulsion Module.

On the morning of launch, New Shepard was rolled out of the Vehicle Processing Facility in a horizontal configuration and took a 2.9-kilometer journey to the launch pad. Once at the launch pad, the rocket was erected vertically on the launch stand where the vehicle prepared for flight.

A New Shepard Crew Capsule and Propulsion Module on display. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

At T-500 seconds, the payloads onboard New Shepard were powered on and prepared for flight. At T-0, the ignition of the BE-3PM engine, which runs on liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX), was commanded. The vehicle then sat on the launch pad while the engine starts up until T+7 seconds when New Shepard lifted off from the launch stand.

Around 128 seconds into the flight, New Shepard experienced Max-Q. During this period, the BE-3PM engine throttled down to help reduce the g-load which peaked around 2.8 g. At T+146 seconds, New Shepard’s BE-3PM engine cut off as the vehicle passes 60 kilometers in altitude. This was followed by the separation of the Crew Capsule around 15 seconds later. The capsule fired its reaction control system (RCS) after separation to ensure stabilization.

Just over four minutes into the mission, the capsule continued to coast up to an apogee of over 100 kilometers. During this time the payloads onboard the vehicle get to experience microgravity for roughly three minutes.

After reaching apogee, both the New Shepard booster and capsule began their return to Earth and reenter the atmosphere. At around five and a half minutes into the flight, the propulsion module deployed four wedge fins from the ring fin located on the forward end of the booster. These help provide extra stability through the atmosphere.

About a minute later, four drag brakes deployed from the ring fin and assist in cutting the speed of the booster in half. Four actuating fins on the aft end of the booster also assist in guiding the booster through the atmosphere.

New Shepard Tail 4 landing during the NS-19 million, Dec. 11, 2021. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Seven minutes into the flight, the Propulsion Module began its landing burn by relighting its BE-3PM engine.

This is then followed by the deployment of four landing legs and a soft touchdown on the landing pad 3.2 kilometers north of the launch pad.

Roughly a minute after the Propulsion Module touched down, the Crew Capsule deployed its drogue chutes which help slow down the vehicle, then followed by the deployment of the three main parachutes at around one kilometer in altitude.

The Crew Capsule gently descend under the main parachutes for about three minutes. Just before the capsule touches down in the designated primary landing area, it fired a retro-thrust system which provides a cushion of air under the capsule to ensure a soft touchdown.

Following the successful mission, Blue Origin will recover both the Propulsion Module and the Crew Capsule before returning the payloads to customers.

(Lead image: New Shepard on the launch pad ahead of the NS-16 mission in July 2021. Credit: Blue Origin)

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