Blue Origin’s New Shepard Back in Business

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Back in Business

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket is back in business today, more than 15 months after a failure grounded all launches. The company markets New Shepard both to take passengers and experiments into space for a few minutes of weightlessness. Only experiments, not people, were aboard the failed flight in September 2022. The same was true today, but they hope to resume passenger flights soon.

New Shepard-24 (NS-24) lifted off from Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas at 11:42 am Eastern Time (10:42 am Central Time). The launch was postponed a day due to ground system issues and there were a couple of brief holds this morning, but overall the countdown went as planned.

New Shepard, named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space, does not go into orbit. It reaches an altitude just over 100 kilometers (62 miles), the internationally recognized “Von Karman” line of demarcation between air and space. (The FAA and others use a lower limit — 80 km/50 mi.) For 3-4 minutes, whatever is inside — passengers, experiments, or both — are in space and experience weightlessness.

Both the capsule and rocket return to Earth for reuse. This was the ninth flight of this rocket. The capsule descends under parachutes and lands in the Texas desert near the launch site. Thrusters fire moments before touchdown to cushion the impact, kicking up a lot of dust. That can look alarming, but is perfectly normal. Today the capsule landed at 11:53 am ET (10:53 am Central) with a mission elapsed time of 10 minutes and 13 seconds.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard-24 capsule under parachutes moments before touchdown, December 19, 2023. Screengrab.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard-24 (NS-24) capsule lands safely in the Texas desert, December 19, 2023, kicking up dust as thrusters fire to cushion the impact. Screengrab.

The rocket and capsule reached an altitude of 106 km (65.8 mi) Above Ground Level (AGL)/107 km (66.5 mi) Mean Sea Level (MSL).

Blue Origin has said little about what happened with NS-23 on September 12, 2022. The FAA regulates commercial spaceflights only from the standpoint of the safety of the uninvolved public and closed its investigation three months ago also saying little about the cause. Both attributed the failure to engine nozzle overheating.

The system is designed so that if anything goes awry with the rocket, the capsule will automatically detach and safely land under parachutes. That happened with NS-23 and Blue Origin said the 36 experiments it was carrying were undamaged and would be reflown. NS-24 had 33 experiments. A Blue Origin spokeswoman told that “most” were reflights from NS-23, but did not reply to a request for a list of them.

Blue Origin flights also carry postcards from students as part of its Club for the Future nonprofit.

In a statement, Phil Joyce, Senior Vice President, New Shepard, thanked the customers “who flew important science today and the students who contributed postcards to advance our future of living and working in space for the benefit of Earth. … Demand for New Shepard flights continues to grow and we’re looking forward to increasing our flight cadence in 2024.”

Among those customers was Draper, which tested a vision-based navigation system for precise lunar landing, DMEN. Another was the University of Central Florida, which had three experiments aboard to study bone loss in space, how dust behaves in microgravity, and seismic wave propagation in asteroids. NASA later said there were 14 “NASA-supported” technology payloads onboard.

Although NS-23 did not carry passengers, six of the seven previous flights did. Company founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark were two of the first four people to fly on New Shepard on NS-16 in 2021. Added to NS-18, NS-19, NS-20, NS-21, and NS-22, New Shepard has taken a total of 32 people across the Von Karman line into space.

Erika Wagner, Senior Director, Emerging Market Development, ended the webcast by saying that “following a thorough review of today’s mission, we look forward to flying our next crewed flight soon.”


This article has been updated.

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