One of the defining characteristics of the modern space age is the way private aerospace companies (aka. NewSpace) is playing a role like never before. With every passing year, more and more small launch providers are being founded. And between the largest companies – SpaceX and Blue Origin – competition is heating up to see who will secure the most lucrative contracts and make it to Mars first!
In order to ensure they remain competitive, Blue Origin indicated that it would be following SpaceX’s lead by recovering its first-stage rocket boosters at sea. To this end, the company has acquired a used Danish vessel known as Stena Freighter, which recently arrived in Florida. Much like SpaceX’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS), this vessel will be used to retrieve spent rockets after they deliver their cargo to space.
One of the greatest challenges of modern spaceflight is finding a way to make launching rockets into space commercially viable. Reduced costs will not only mean more launches, but the ability to conduct more ambitious programs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and beyond. To this end, many private aerospace companies are investing in reusability, where the first-stages of a rocket and even entire vehicles are retrieved after launch and reused.
In recent years, Elon Musk has become famous for his development of reusable first-stage boosters and fairings. But Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos has also been no slouch when it comes to making the company’s fleet of rockets reusable. On Sunday, April 29th, the company is passing another milestone with the 8th test flight of the New Shephard rocket, an event which is being live-streamed.
As a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle, the New Shephard is crucial to Blue Origins’ vision of commercial spaceflight and space tourism. Consisting of a pressurized capsule aboard a booster, the combined vehicle launches vertically and accelerates for two and a half minutes before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates and floats into suborbit while the booster returns to Earth under its own power and with the help of parachutes.
Launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT. Livestream info to come. @BlueOrigin#GradatimFerociterpic.twitter.com/zAYpAGWB8C
Named in honor of famed astronaut Alan Shepard, the rocket’s crew capsule has room for six people. These will consist of customers looking to take a flight to suborbital altitudes and experience the sensation of weightlessness. As they state on their website:
“The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”
The announcement for the 8th test launch came on Friday, April. 27th, when Bezos tweeted that “launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT.” The launch would take place at the company’s suborbital launch and engine test site near the town of Van Horn in West Texas.
As with the previous New Shepard test launch, which took place on Dec. 12th, 2017, the crew for this mission would be the mannequin known as “Mannequin Skywalker” (check out the video of this flight below). As with the previous uncrewed flight, Mannequin Skywalker will be testing the capsule’s safety restrains in advance of a crewed test flight.
At 0526 (0826 PST), Bezos tweeted that the flight window – which was originally set for 0845 CDT (0630 PDT) – had been delayed due to thunderstorm over West Texas. At 0950 CDT (0750 PDT), Bezos issued a follow-up tweet that the liftoff target was now 1113 CDT (0913 PST). Live streaming will begin 15 minutes before the launch, which you can watch by going to Blue Origin’s website.
If successful, this launch test will place Blue Origin one step closer to conducting space tourism. As Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, recently indicated in an interview with CNBC, he hopes the company will begin these launches by the end of this year. In addition, he said that the company continues to pursue the development of engine technology, which it hopes United Launch Alliance will use on its Vulcan rockets as well.
Be sure to check out the live-steam of the launch, and feel free to enjoy this video of the New Shepard conducting a space tourism flight while you’re waiting:
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos provided a sneak peek today into the interior of the New Shepard crew capsule, the suborbital vehicle for space tourism. He released a few images which illustrate what the flight experience might be like on board.
“Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” Bezos said via an email release. “In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort.”
Take a look:
The interior has six seats with large windows for a great view of our planet.
“Every seat’s a window seat,” Bezos said.
What looks like a console in the center of the capsule is actually the escape motor to protect future passengers from any anomaly during launch. Unlike the Apollo escape system that used an escape “tower” motor located on top of the capsule to ‘pull’ the crew cabin away from a failing booster, New Shepard’s escape system is mounted underneath the capsule, to ‘push’ the capsule away from a potentially exploding booster. Blue Origin successfully tried out this escapes motor in October 2016 during an in-flight test.
Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket is named after Alan Shepard, the first NASA astronaut to take a suborbital trip to space in 1961. Their orbital rocket will be named New Glenn, named for John Glenn, the first American in orbit. Blue Origin is also developing a larger rocket to bring payloads beyond Earth orbit, and they’ve named that vehicle after Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the Moon.
Blue Origin hasn’t released a timeline yet of when they will be flying their first paying passengers; all Bezos has said is that he hopes to fly as soon as possible.
The commercial company describes the experience this way:
Following a thrilling launch, you’ll soar over 100 km above Earth—beyond the internationally recognized edge of space. You’ll help extend the legacy of space explorers who have come before you, while pioneering access to the space frontier for all.
Sitting atop a 60-foot-tall rocket in a capsule designed for six people, you’ll feel the engine ignite and rumble under you as you climb through the atmosphere. Accelerating at more than 3 Gs to faster than Mach 3, you will count yourself as one of the few who have gone these speeds and crossed into space.
“We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know,” Bezos said in the press release after a successful test flight of the New Shepard rocket in 2015. “We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step. Our fantastic team in Kent, Van Horn and Cape Canaveral is working hard not just to build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space.”
Blue Origin’s black feather logo on the New Shepard rocket is ‘a symbol of the perfection of flight,’ says founder Jeff Bezos, and “flight with grace and power in its functionality and design.”
Their moto, “Gradatim Ferociter” is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.” Bezos has said that is how they are approaching their goals in spaceflight.
If you’re lucky enough to be attending the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 3-6, 2017, you can see the New Shepard capsule for yourself. “The high-fidelity capsule mockup will be on display alongside the New Shepard reusable booster that flew to space and returned five times.” Bezos said.