Blue Origin tests passenger accommodations on suborbital launch

EDITOR’S NOTE: Updated after launch.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifts off from West Texas on Thursday. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin says it is “very, very close” to flying humans on suborbital launches to the edge of space after a successful test flight of a human-capable rocket and capsule Thursday.

The company’s New Shepard rocket and crew capsule took off at 12:17 p.m. EST (11:17 a.m. CST; 1717 GMT) Thursday from Blue Origin’s private launch site north of Van Horn, Texas, east of El Paso.

The launch was delayed 20 minutes as officials monitored mid-level winds over the test site. Blue Origin streamed the launch live on YouTube.

Powered by a hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine, the single-stage New Shepard booster soared through the atmosphere to reach an apogee, or maximum altitude, of 350,827 feet, or 106.9 kilometers. That’s above the internationally-recognized boundary of space.

The capsule separated from the rocket after engine shutdown, then began their descents back to Earth.

The reusable New Shepard rocket deployed air brakes and reignited its engine for a vertical landing back at Blue Origin’s commercial spaceport about seven minutes after liftoff. The autonomous rocket self-corrected its path toward its target in the final seconds, and the booster ended up just off the center of the landing pad.

Meanwhile, the capsule unfurled parachutes and briefly fired its own braking rockets to cushion its touchdown on the desert landscape nearby.

The entire mission lasted around 10 minutes, 15 seconds, from liftoff until landing of the capsule, according to quick-look post-flight statistics provided by Blue Origin.

It was the 14th flight of a suborbital New Shepard rocket and capsule since 2015, but the test mission Thursday debuted a new spacecraft and rocket with the accoutrements needed to carry people.

The new capsule is named “RSS First Step,” with RSS standing for Reusable Spaceship. The rocket is Tail No. 4 in Blue Origin’s fleet.

Blue Origin has not said when it will begin flying people to space on the New Shepard system, but the vehicle flown Thursday is the same one that will ultimately launch and land with passengers, according to Patrick Zeitouni, head of Blue Origin’s advanced development programs.

“This is very exciting as we now have two vehicles in operation, one of which is going to be dedicated to payload flights, and that one has flown 7 consecutive successful missions,” Zeitouni said shortly before Thursday’s launch. “And now we have this new vehicle today that’s going to be taking its first flight, and this one will be used for astronaut missions.”

“We’re getting very, very close to flying our first astronauts, so that’s why it’s critical that we test these systems,” said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, and co-host of the company’s launch webcast Thursday.

Blue Origin officials said during a webcast of the company’s previous launch Oct. 13 that teams needed “just a couple more” test flights before clearing the New Shepard for human passengers. A source said the company has a goal of conducting its first human flight in 2021, pending good results from Thursday’s flight and subsequent launches.

“For this mission, the crew capsule will be outfitted with upgrades for the astronaut experience as the program nears human space flight,” Blue Origin said in a statement before the test flight. “The upgrades include improvements to environmental features such as acoustics and temperature regulation inside the capsule, crew display panels, and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat.”

The push-to-talk button will allow passengers to speak with mission control during a flight.

“We’re flying the crew alert system, its a panel at each seat with lights and sounds that give the astronauts alerts and important safety messages,” Cornell said.

A lining on the inner wall of the capsule will help passengers more comfortably float around inside the spacecraft without bumping into any hard surfaces. It also is designed to suppress engine noise inside the cabin, according to Cornell.

She said the environmental systems inside “RSS First Step” capsule include cooling and humidity control loops to regulate temperatures and prevent the craft’s windows from fogging in flight. There’s also a carbon dioxide scrubber on-board, Cornell said.

There were six seats inside the capsule for Thursday’s test flight, including one occupied by Mannequin Skywalker, Blue Origin’s flight suit-clad test dummy that has flown on past launches.

“As we get closer to flying humans, we, of course, have been building a history of successful missions proving out the safety of the New Shepard vehicle,” Cornell said Thursday. “Now that we’re even closer, we’re testing our features geared toward the experience for the astronauts inside the capsule.”

Blue Origin also flew more than 50,000 postcards from students around the world, submitted to launch into space through Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. The postcards, some of which flew in Mannequin Skywalker’s pockets, will be returned to the students after flying in space.

Founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin is in the final phase of testing the suborbital New Shepard booster and capsule before permitting people to ride the rocket into space.

Paying space tourists and commercial and government researchers could be passengers on future New Shepard flights, which will give customers about three-to-four minutes of microgravity as the capsule reaches apogee, or the highest point of its ballistic arc. Past New Shepard test missions have flown experiments for NASA and universities.

Blue Origin is leading a team of companies developing a human-rated lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, alongside aerospace contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Industrial teams led by Dynetics and SpaceX are also vying for a NASA contract to build the human-rated Moon lander.

The company is also developing a huge orbital-class rocket named New Glenn, which will launch large satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.

Email the author.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.