Blue Origin to Test In-Flight Escape System Next Week – UPDATE

Blue Origin to Test In-Flight Escape System Next Week – UPDATE

Update, October 3, 2016:  The test has been postponed by one day, to October 5, due to bad weather.

Original story, September 30, 2016: Blue Origin President Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that the company will conduct an in-flight test of its escape system for the New Shepard rocket.  The test will take place on October 4, which happens to be the 59th anniversary of the Space Age — the date when the Soviet Union orbited the world’s first satellite, Sputnik.  Blue Origin will provide a live webcast of the test.

New Shepard is a reusable, suborbital rocket designed to take passengers on short trips to space.  It is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, who made a 15 minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961 (three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, completing one orbit of the Earth).  There is no legal definition of where air ends and space begins, but today 100 kilometers is an internationally recognized boundary and that is what companies like Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic use as their benchmark.

The in-flight escape system would be used if an emergency occurred during launch and the crew capsule had to be separated from the rocket to return the passengers safely to Earth. In the test, the escape system will be triggered approximately 45 seconds after launch at an altitude of 16,000 feet.  If all goes as planned, the capsule will separate and land using its parachutes.

The rocket that will be used for this test has flown four times already.   Bezos is not optimistic that it will survive this fifth flight since it was not designed to withstand the aerodynamic forces it will experience. He said there is a chance it might, but if not, “its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

Launch of New Shepard rocket on its fourth flight, June 19, 2016.  This same rocket will be used for the October 4 test.  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The webcast on the Blue Origin website will begin at 10:50 am ET.  The time for the test itself was not specified.

Elon Musk may be focused on sending 1 million people to Mars, but Bezos wants “millions of people living and working in space” generally.   Two weeks ago he announced plans for his orbital rocket, New Glenn, named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth (on February 20, 1962).   He expects the first New Glenn launch by the end of the decade.  It will use BE-4 rocket engines that he is developing.  They use a novel propellant — Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and liquified natural gas (methane) instead of the traditional LOX/kerosene.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is considering use of the BE-4 for its new Vulcan rocket, as well.

After New Glenn will come New Armstrong, named after Neil Armstrong, the first human to step foot on the Moon (on July 20, 1969).  Bezos said only that it is “up next on our drawing board … but that’s a story for the future.”

For now, he is focused on suborbital flights and the October 4 test is another step in that direction.

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