Dress Rehearsal Puts Blue Origin Closer to Human Spaceflight

Dress Rehearsal Puts Blue Origin Closer to Human Spaceflight

Blue Origin took another step closer to launching people on suborbital trips to space today. For the first time, company employees performed a pre- and post-launch dress rehearsal of what passengers will experience on a New Shepard flight, though no one was aboard the rocket when it actually flew.

The New Shepard-15 (NS-15) launch itself was another success for the Jeff Bezos-owned company.  During the 10 minute, 10 second flight, the reusable rocket reached an altitude of 347,193 feet (105 kilometers) above ground level (AGL) at the launch site in West Texas. The passenger capsule separates from the rocket during ascent and lands separately.  It reached an attitude of 347,574 feet (105 km) before setting back down on the Texas soil under three parachutes.

Uncrewed Blue Origin passenger capsule returning to Earth against a hazy sky under parachute, April 14, 2021. Screengrab.

Blue Origin provided a webcast beginning more than an hour before launch that included video of its “stand-in astronauts,” all company personnel, arriving at the launch site, climbing the launch tower, and two of them entering the capsule.

The four were Gary Lai, the capsule’s designer; Susan Knapp, Chief Financial Officer; Clay Mowry, Vice President, Sales, Marketing & Customer Experience; and Audrey Powers, Vice President, Legal and Compliance. (Powers also is Chairwoman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group.)

Lai and Powers were the two who briefly got in. They strapped into their seats and closed the hatch, but exited the vehicle before liftoff.  Mowry and Knapp went only as far as the capsule.

Blue Origin’s Audrey Powers inside the passenger capsule during a dress rehearsal April 14, 2021. Credit: Blue Origin

The capsule seats six, but the Mannequin Skywalker anthropomorphic test article (“test dummy”) was in one and three were filled with containers of postcards from Bezos’s Club for the Future program to inspire children to study STEM fields.

Mowry (second from the right, in black, in the photo below) later tweeted it was an “amazing experience” and they are “So close to crewed flight now.” But he did not say how close. The company’s motto is “Gradatim Ferocitur” — Step by Step, Ferociously — and the step by step part is certainly true. The date for flying passengers has slipped year by year.

Bezos  later posted on Instagram: “It’s time.”  Perhaps Blue Origin will finally reach its goal this year.

The company has not revealed how much it will charge to take a ride on New Shepard, which is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space.  Shepard made a suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space, making one orbit of the Earth. The United States did not match that feat until February 20, 1962 when John Glenn became the first American to reach orbit. Blue Origin is also building the New Glenn rocket that will be capable of orbital flight.

No legal definition exists of where air ends and space begins. Blue Origin uses the “Kármán line” at 100 kilometers (62 miles) altitude as that demarcation. It is accepted by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which oversees international aviation records. Others, however, including the U.S. Air Force, the FAA (which regulates commercial human spaceflight and awards “commercial astronaut wings”), Blue Origin’s competitor Virgin Galactic, and some scientists, use 80 kilometers (50 miles). It was that threshold that Shepard surpassed on his flight in 1961.

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