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Blue Origin's suborbital spacecraft completes first test flight

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Apr 30, 2015, 17:57 UTC

Sen—Blue Origin, a commercial spaceflight company set up by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, completed the first test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on Wednesday, April 29.

The spacecraft, which was unmanned for the test, lifted off from the company's west Texas facility, powered by its BE-3 liquid oyxgen and liquid hydrogen engine, which recently completed its test program. The BE-3 engine powered New Shepard through Mach 3 to reach the planned altitude of 307,000 ft (94,000 metres).

New Shepard consists of a pressurized capsule, designed to carry up to six passengers, and a booster. 

"The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect. Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return," wrote Jeff Bezos on the company's web site.

The New Shepard capsule safely returned to land under its parachutes. The only glitch during the test flight was the failure to recover the booster due to lost pressure in the hydraulic system during descent, explained Bezos. The separated booster was intended to make its own vertical touchdown, independent of the capsule.

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin is focused on reusability and has designed its rockets to land back near the launch site after delivering their payloads into space. This approach—known as Vertical Takeoff Vertical Landing (VTVL)—will enable the rocket boosters to be reused and turned around quickly for the next flight, ultimately reducing the cost of reaching space.

New Shepard is being developed as a suborbital vehicle that will eventually carry passengers over the 100 km Kármán Line (328,084 ft), an internationally recognised definition of space.

Dozens of unmanned test flights are planned before the company's pilots ride aboard New Shepard. The test program is expected take about two years to complete, after which Blue Origin will open up the service to fee-paying passengers. No pricing has been given yet for the suborbital experience.

Suborbital spaceflights are also being developed by Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, both of which are developing vehicles which start their journey on runways, rather than atop a vertical takeoff rocket, to reach space.

Virgin Galactic hopes to resume its testing program later this year with a second SpaceShipTwo, having lost the first one in a tragic accident last October. XCOR Aerospace is set to commence its test flight program later this year too.

As well as building a suborbital vehicle, Blue Origin is planning a much bigger version of New Shepard for orbital spaceflight. Bezos explained this approach on his company's web site. He said: "We continue to be big fans of the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture. We chose VTVL because it’s scalable to very large size. 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 lb-force thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine."

Blue Origin's approach of focusing on suborbital flights first and then developing a larger version of the vehicle for orbital flights is reminiscent of NASA's Mercury program, which completed two suborbital flights before reaching orbit as intended on the third flight. New Shepard is in fact named after Alan Shepard, whose suborbital flight aboard the Freedom 7 capsule on May 5, 1961, made him the first American in space.


Graphic showing the flight launch, separation and landing of the booster and capsule. Image credit: Blue Origin.