Blue Origin's New Shepard Rocket Blows Away Crew Capsule, Both Survive

Blue Origin's New Shepard Rocket Blows Away Crew Capsule, Both Survive

Blue Origin successfully tested its in-flight escape system today deliberatley separating the crew capsule from the New Shepard rocket while it was accelerating into space.  Company founder Jeff Bezos kept expectations low that the rocket would survive the event, but survive it did, continuing on its way to space as though nothing had happened and returning to land about two miles from its launch site.  This was the fifth — and last — flight this specific reusable rocket whose next destination is a museum.

New Shepard is designed to take passengers on suborbital trips to space and return them to Earth.  Both the rocket and the crew capsule are reusable.  Blue Origin, in keeping with its slogan, Gradatim Ferociter (step-by-step, ferociously), is conducting tests to show that the rocket and capsule can safely return passengers to Earth under several different failure scenarios.

In today’s test, launch of the New Shepard rocket was delayed by three unplanned holds.  Two were very brief, but one lasted about 15 minutes.  The company did not fully explain why, but at approximately 11:30 am ET (10:30 am local time at the Blue Origin test range in west Texas), the rocket lifted off.  As planned, about 45 seconds later at an altitude of 16,000 feet where the rocket encounters maximum dynamic pressure (MaxQ), Blue Origin triggered the escape sequence.  A solid rocket motor at the base of the crew capsule fired and pushed the capsule away from the rocket.

The bright light near the top is the solid rocket motor firing to separate the crew capsule (above) from the rocket (below).  Photo credit: Blue Origin

The firing of the solid rocket motor imparted 700,000 pounds of force onto the rocket.  It was not designed to withstand such forces, so Bezos and his team expected the rocket to fail at that point and crash onto the desert floor, making an “impressive” impact.

The rocket was tougher than that, though.  It continued on its way to space as it did in previous launches.  For its part, the crew capsule experienced a survivable, but exhilarating flight profile after separation, soon stabilizing and deploying its drogue parachutes.

On left, crew capsule under drogue parachutes returning to Earth.  On right, New Shepard rocket continuing on its path to space.  Screenshot from Blue Origin webcast.

Referred to as a “full envelope escape system,” it is designed to ensure that people will be able to survive no matter what may happen during launch. 

Once passenger flights begin, it will be a short ride — 11 minutes total, of which four are in zero gravity (g).  During descent, they will experience a peak of 5 gs of force.  The capsule descends in free flight, then deploys drogue parachutes, then main parachutes, slowing it to three miles per hour when thrusters fire for the final soft landing (similar to how Russian Soyuz spacecraft land).

New Shepard is a suborbital rocket named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space on a suborbital flight in 1961.  Next, Blue Origin plans to launch a rocket before the end of this decade that is capable of achieving orbit.  It is named New Glenn in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth (in 1962).  It will be followed by New Armstrong, after Neil Armstrong, the first human to set foot on the Moon (1969).  Bezos asserts that his long term vision is for “millions of people living and working in space.”

A video of the test is posted on YouTube.  To see only the launch, separation, and capsule and rocket landings, scroll forward to 1:06.  

New Shepard is powered by Blue Origin’s own BE-3 liquid oxygen (LOX)/liquid hydrogen engines.  It also is developing the BE-4 engine that will use a novel LOX/liquefied natural gas (methane) mixture.  New Glenn will use BE-4 engines.  The United Launch Alliance is also considering BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket.

Blue Origin’s main competitor for suborbital tourist flights is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which uses a completely different type of system.  Today, they offered their congratulations, tweeting (@virgingalactic) “Kudos from our whole team.”  The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group to which Blue Origin belongs, also offered congratulations.

Correction:  An earlier version identified Jeff Bezos as the President of Blue Origin.  He is the founder; Rob Meyerson is the President.

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