Blue Origin's New Shepard completes first Development Flight to Edge of Space
Blue Origin's New Shepard space vehicle flew its first developmental test flight on Wednesday from the company's Texas launch site. The New Shepard vehicle is being developed as a sub-orbital space vehicle capable of transporting humans beyond the edge of space as part of commercial flights.
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, is an aerospace company involved in the development of rocket engine technology, space vehicles and launch vehicle technology, challenging the commercial space tourism firms such as Virgin Galactic but also participating in NASA's commercial crew program and the development of the main engine for United Launch Alliance's future Vulcan rocket.
New Shepard, named in reference to America's first astronaut in space Alan Shepard, is a vertical-takeoff, vertical landing suborbital crewed space vehicle capable of carrying a Crew Capsule to an altitude of 100 Kilometers from where the capsule will return on a sub-orbital arc and the rocket will descend under the power of its engine for a vertical landing to be re-used for future flights.
A first sub-scale version of the vehicle flew in 2006 and Blue Origin began the development of the BE-3 engine, a cryogenic rocket engine (powered by Liquid Oxygen and Liquid Hydrogen), delivering 490 Kilonewtons of thrust, 50,000 Kilogram-force. A second test vehicle flew in 2011, but was lost in a failure due to flight instability that triggered the rocket's destruct system. In parallel to rocket testing, the secretive company developed its Crew Capsule that provides around 15 cubic meters of volume and is fully certified to fly humans to the edge of space with a full-envelope launch escape system that completed its first tests in 2012.
By April 2015, the BE-3 engine had finished acceptance testing and Blue Origin announced the full-scale New Shepard vehicle would commence its multi-year suborbital test program later in the year. The FAA confirmed that call regulatory paperwork had been completed and cleared the way for the test program.
On Wednesday, New Shepard took to the skies over West Texas, lighting up its BE-3 engine and rising from its launch pad. The Propulsion Module operated normally, taking the vehicle through a small divert maneuver before ascending vertically. Firing its engine until around two minutes into the flight, the vehicle reached a peak velocity of Mach 3. Shortly after engine cutoff, the Crew Capsule was separated from its booster continuing to coast uphill until reaching the high-point of its trajectory at 93.5 Kilometers.
Passing apogee, the Crew Capsule began falling back to Earth, initially deploying three drogue chutes to stabilize the flight of the vehicle before the three large main chutes were released to allow the craft to descent to a gentle touchdown, cushioned by soft landing engines. "Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return," Jeff Bezos wrote on the company website.
The booster also began its return journey, deploying forward fins and homing in for a vertical landing under the power of its BE-3 main engine that was planned to ignite several seconds before the planned touchdown. Unfortunately, the vehicle experienced a loss of hydraulic pressure during descent, preventing it from making a successful landing maneuver.
Bezos said a new and improved hydraulic system has already been in development and will be introduced soon. He also confirmed that work on Propulsion Modules #2 and #3 is already underway to allow the company to fly again soon.
Bezos also provided hints on Blue Origin's future vehicle: "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 [2,450kN] thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine."
Once operational, New Shepard and its Crew Capsule will carry crews of three or more to an altitude over 100 Kilometers, the accepted boundary to space. Four or five minutes of weightlessness could be experienced by crews before falling back into the dense atmosphere for a landing around ten minutes after liftoff. The company also hopes that their vehicle can find a role in the launch of scientific payloads.
When beginning operational business, Blue Origin hopes to achieve a flight rate of about once per week to compete with Virgin Galactic's winged SpaceShipTwo that will also loft space explorers with deep pockets to the edge of space for a few minutes to microgravity and the sight of Earth's curvature and thin atmosphere.