This morning (Wednesday, October 5) there was a very small percentage of Americans who were aware that the company Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos was going to attempt a dramatic inflight abort of it’s prototype crew capsule from it’s single-stage New Shepherd rocket. To give a small background on the company. Blue Origin’s first launch of the New Shepherd took place in April 2015 and the launch saw the successful landing of the crew capsule, but the first stage rocket was lost due to loss of pressure in the boosters hydraulic systems. A successful launch and landing of both crew capsule and first stage booster occurred on November 23, 2015, just over a week or so before SpaceX made it’s first successful first stage landing from an orbital trajectory at the Kennedy Space Center. There is a big difference between Blue Origin’s return of first stage and that of SpaceX.
New Shepherd is only going on a suborbital trajectory while SpaceX endures much harsher reentry conditions from an orbital trajectory mission. Nonetheless, Blue Origin has been very successful with launching this same rocket and craft now for five missions since November, 2015. The goal of the company is to begin sending paying customers on a suborbital mission at a height of 60 miles above earth to experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Once someone passes the 50 mile mark, individuals are considered astronauts because they are considered to be in space at that altitude.
At it’s launch site in west Texas, New Shepherd’s B-E engine ignited at 11:36 a.m. Eastern and seven seconds later (after health checks of the engine), the rocket climbed into the beautiful blue sky on it’s fifth flight. This time, the first stage wasn’t supposed to survive the abort because of the upward velocity and immediately being hammered with an off axis thrust of 70,000 pounds was supposed to be too much for the rocket’s engine and thrusters to recover from. The rocket climbed until the point of 45 seconds into the flight at speeds close to the speed of sound, when a programmed anomaly was triggered and the solid rocket push motor ignited and pushed the capsule away from the first stage for a few seconds. Watching this happen was a very dramatic scene, but what was even more amazing was that the first stage seemed to be totally unaffected by the sudden aerodynamic change suddenly loosing the capsule and continuing to climb with a shape that was not aerodynamic at all. It was like the front of an airplane being a box. The capsule successfully recovered and landed successfully on the desert floor. The first stage continued it’s flight (at reduced thrust) to it’s normal altitude and landed safely back on it’s landing pad nine minutes after launch.
The capsule and rocket will be retired after this flight but other “New Shepherd” rockets and capsules are coming from their plant in Washington State. This test was a major milestone because paying space tourist could begin taking trips next year. There has been no word of rival Virgin Galactic’s advance since their crash back in October 2014. Seems like Blue Origin will beat out Virgin unless they come out with a very aggressive test program to catch up and surpass Blue Origin.
Why is this so important? How could this affect the country? Well, think about this for a second. A new space industry. Right now, it’s suborbital flight, but to be able to book a trip for your honey moon or vacation to experience a view that only astronauts have seen. To be able to unbuckle and float in the cabin and do flips and just enjoy what astronauts experience for a few minutes. That will turn into orbital flights that Blue Origin is also working on with it’s New Glenn spacecraft and new engine. There will be opportunities to build hotels and private stations for every day people like you and me to go one day in the very near future. This could possibly be a reality in the next 10-15 years or so. If you’re even more daring, you could be a part of Elon Musk’s or now Boeing’s plans to go to Mars.
Exciting times and a great economic opportunity for this country.