Blue Origin Launches Crew Capsule on Critical Escape Motor Test at Highest Altitude Yet

Blue Origin’s ‘New Shepherd 2.0’ crew capsule fires its escape motor at 390,000 feet, seconds after separating from its suborbital rocket, in its highest flight yet on July 18, 2018. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin just pulled off another successful flight test this morning, launching their ‘New Shepherd 2.0’ crew capsule on a critical high-altitude escape motor test to ensure astronauts can get away from an anomaly with the rocket at any time during flight. 

“Picture-perfect” is how the company’s web host Ariane Cornell described today’s mission, the ninth of their current flight test program, which took off from Blue Origin’s west Texas launch site at 10:11 a.m. local time.

It was the third flight for both the capsule itself and its suborbital rocket, and the third flight to test the capsule’s abort / escape capability from an emergency situation. The first was done in October 2012 with a pad abort test, simulating escaping a failure on the launch pad. The next was conducted in October 2016 to test the capsule’s escape motor in flight at Max-Q, the most stressful aerodynamic point for the rocket and capsule, and did so perfectly.

For today’s third capsule-abort test, following Max-Q the mission reached a maximum velocity of 2,236mph before the rocket’s main engine cut off nominally (MECO) at an altitude of about 190,000 feet, followed shortly after by separation of the capsule from the rocket at about 240,000 feet. Still ascending, the vehicles put about 100 feet of distance between themselves (about 20 seconds time) before the capsule conducted its major test, firing its escape motor at its highest altitude ever, at just shy of 390,000 feet (50k km higher than they ever went before).

The test also gave engineers an opportunity to see how the spacecraft’s Reaction Control System works to keep the capsule stable in space after such an escape, before descending back to Earth.

First the rocket returned for a nominal landing just a couple miles from its launch pad, and was followed shortly after by the capsule nearby, floating down under 3 main parachutes before firing its retrorocket to cushion the landing impact.

Everything appears to have been a complete success once again.

Mission 9 takes flight July 18, 2018, to test the crew capsule’s in-flight escape motor after booster separation. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Owned by billionaire entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, the Kent, Wash.-based company has been making progress at a steady rate the last few years in developing and testing a fully reusable, suborbital New Shepherd flight system and making plans to resurrect dormant Cape Canaveral Launch Complex-36 (LC-36) to fly it from.

Our New Shepherd flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system,” said Bezos. “In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort.

The New Shepherd suborbital rocket and crew capsule caters to paying space tourists on short duration flights, not full orbits of the Earth – but rather 10 minutes or so of experiencing spaceflight.

It is designed to accommodate six passengers, or crew, and provides 530 cubic feet interior volume and six large windows to provide “unparalleled views”—the largest ever on a spacecraft.

Mannequin Skywalker in flight aboard New Shepherd on a previous flight test. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

And their instrumented test dummy “Mannequin Skywalker” was onboard again as well, his third flight, collecting astronaut data. According to Blue Origin, he went through 3Gs on ascent, went weightless at MECO, then peaked at 10Gs for the motor escape firing.

Today’s ‘Mission 9’ also flew several customer payloads as well, various science and education experiments for microgravity research. It’s the third time Blue Origin has flown payloads on their testing program. Everything from NASA suborbital research, to testing of commercial WiFi in space, to an experiment by Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory to monitor magnetic fields and ambient pressure inside the vehicle. Even a suite of payloads from Blue Origin employees was onboard, as part of the company’s internal “Fly My Stuff” program.

A full overview of the payloads flown can be seen HERE.

Our New Shepard system is ideal for microgravity physics, gravitational biology, technology demonstrations, and educational programs. You’ll also have the opportunity for Earth, atmospheric, and space science research,” notes Blue Origin on their website.

Blue Origin’s rocket landing after a successful Mission 9 to test out the crew capsule’s escape motor after booster separation. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Soon, people will be able to purchase tickets to fly on Bezos’ New Shepherd rocket and capsule for a suborbital experience, although the price tag as of now is still not known. You can visit Blue Origin’s website for an idea of their “astronaut experience” HERE, and sign up for email updates as things come together for those first crewed flights.

The company hopes to begin flight tests with astronaut crews in the next year or so, with the first commercial flights lifting off from Florida’s Launch Complex 36 by the turn of the decade, which was selected as their launch site by Bezos due to the amount of talent and skills specific to spaceflight that exist on the Space Coast. This also gives the company manufacture, assembly, and launch facilities all in the same place, bringing hundreds of new full-time jobs to the Cape’s local economy in the process.


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