Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship aces uncrewed rehearsal for crewed flight to space

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Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship ascends from its West Texas launch pad. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture put the New Shepard spaceship that’s destined to fly people on suborbital trips through its first uncrewed test flight today — and by all appearances, the practice run was a success.

The reusable booster and its attached crew capsule lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas at about 11:19 a.m. CT (9:19 a.m. PT), after a countdown that was delayed 20 minutes due to concerns about midlevel winds.

“Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

This was the first outing for this particular spaceship. The capsule has been dubbed RSS First Step, with RSS standing for “reusable spaceship.” During a string of 13 previous test flights going back to 2015, Blue Origin has flown two other reusable capsules — but First Step is the first one that’s fully configured to take up to six people to the edge of space and back.

If the program goes as hoped, Blue Origin could start flying people later this year.

This spaceship is equipped with acoustic and temperature control equipment, as well as display screens, a safety alert system, speakers and in-seat microphones with push-to-talk buttons. There’s even a defogging system for the capsule’s nearly floor-to-ceiling windows.

A sensor-equipped test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker filled one of the seats and provided data about how humans would weather the up-and-down ride.

About a minute after launch, the craft was programmed to rotate at the rate of one complete turn every two to three minutes. When people get on board, that maneuver will give them a panoramic view of the terrain below.

On the way up, the booster achieved a supersonic velocity in excess of 2,200 mph. The capsule successfully separated from its booster about a minute later, and rose to an unofficially measured altitude of 350,827 feet (66.3 miles or 106.7 kilometers). That’s higher than the internationally accepted 100-kilometer boundary of outer space, which is also known as the Karman Line.

The capsule descended back to the ground, buoyed by parachutes and braked by a retrorocket blast. Meanwhile, the booster made its own autonomously controlled descent, unfurling its legs and executing a graceful touchdown on its designated landing pad. The whole mission took 10 minutes and 15 seconds from start to finish.

“If you were an astronaut onboard that capsule there, you would have had an incredible ride up over the Karman Line and back. … We did the 360-degree spin this time, [you’d] get your three minutes of weightlessness,” Cornell said. “I can’t wait to check out the onboard cameras and see the views that Mannequin Skywalker experienced today.”

Among the payloads packed aboard the capsule were more than 50,000 postcards sent in by students around the globe through the auspices of Blue Origin’s Club for the Future educational campaign. Some of those postcards were tucked inside Mannequin Skywalker’s pockets. Previous batches of postcards were flown during New Shepard test missions in December 2019 and October 2020.

A year ago, Blue Origin executives had thought New Shepard would be taking on crewed suborbital flights by now — but that was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Coronavirus complications added to the snags that are typically encountered in the course of testing a new spaceship.

Cornell emphasized that the company observed social-distancing guidelines for mission preparations and sent a minimal ground crew to Texas for the launch.

The company isn’t yet taking reservations for passenger flights, and it hasn’t yet set the ticket price for New Shepard trips. But back in 2019, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said the price for the first commercial passengers would probably be in the range of “hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Blue Origin builds the hardware for the suborbital New Shepard program at its headquarters in Kent, Wash. The company is also working on an orbital-class New Glenn rocket that will be built in and launched from Florida, as well as a lunar landing system that would be built for NASA’s use in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

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