Friday, May 1, 2015

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Spacecraft Conducts First Test Flight

The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off on its first developmental test flight over Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site. The crew capsule reached apogee at 307,000 feet before beginning its descent back to Earth. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, a rocket engine and spacecraft development company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, carried out an unpiloted maiden test flight of its New Shepard sub-orbital launch vehicle Wednesday, the company revealed early Thursday. "Today we flew the first developmental test flight of our New Shepard space vehicle. Our 110,000-lbf thrust liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine worked flawlessly, powering New Shepard through Mach 3 to its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet," Bezos said. A dramatic video posted on Blue Origin's website showed the squat vertical-takeoff-and-landing New Shepard rocket being erected on a launch platform at the company's west Texas development facility followed by a brief countdown -- with Bezos looking on -- a smooth liftoff and a vertical climb to an altitude of 58 miles.

The launch puts the company a step closer to taking tourists into suborbital space, where they would have the rare chance to experience weightlessness and glimpse the Earth from more than 60 miles away. The New Shepard capsule can carry three or more astronauts and scientific payloads.

Blue Origin will be competing with Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, with its winged air-dropped rocketplane, and other companies vying to carry "space tourists" out of Earth's atmosphere for brief sub-orbital forays into space.

"Guidance, navigation and control was nominal throughout max Q and all of ascent. 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," Bezos said.

After a clean separation from the propulsion module, the New Shepard crew capsule descends to a gentle landing in the west Texas desert. Credit: Blue Origin
After a clean separation from the propulsion module, the New Shepard crew capsule descends to a gentle landing in the west Texas desert. Credit: Blue Origin

Like other companies, Blue Origin wants to create reusable vehicles, which would dramatically lower the cost of space flight. While the capsule, guided by parachutes, landed safely back on Earth, the propulsion module was lost, Bezos said, "because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent." "Fortunately, we’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system," he said.

Blue Origin was also chosen to develop an engine for United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. That engine, the BE-4, would be more powerful than the BE-3 used in Wednesday's launch.

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