Blue Origin, the aerospace company privately owned and bankrolled by billionaire and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, announced early today, April 30, that the firm successfully flew the maiden developmental test flight of their New Shepard space vehicle on Wednesday, April 29.
The highly secretive company divulged the completion of the uncrewed suborbital test flight in the overnight hours, after it had taken place from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site.
The New Shepard crew vehicle soared aloft atop a finned Blue Origin rocket powered by the firm’s privately developed liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen fueled BE-3 engine to an altitude of approximately 58 miles (93 kilometers).
Bezos vision is for New Shepard to eventually carry astronauts and space tourists on suborbital trips to space.
“Today we flew the first developmental test flight of our New Shepard space vehicle,” said founder Jeff Bezos in an online blog and statement.
“Our 110,000-lbf thrust liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine worked flawlessly, powering New Shepard through Mach 3 to its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet.”
The BE-3 rocket engine is the first new hydrogen engine to be developed in the United States in more than a decade since the RS-68. Blue Origin recently completed acceptance testing of the engine, as reported here. In the future the company plans to modify it for use as an upper stage.
Here’s a dramatic video of the launch and capsule landing posted by Blue Origin:
Video caption: Highlights from Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle as it makes its first developmental test flight on April 29, 2015. Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin’s rocket system is based on a reusable vertical takeoff and landing architecture that will carry up to six astronauts or space tourists to the edge of space.
You can even sign up for a mailing list to receive “early notification when we’re ready to accept flight reservations.”
The boundary of space is generally defined as starting at 62 miles (100 km).
The New Shepard capsule sports 530 cubic feet of interior pressurized volume, enough “for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults,” says Blue Orion.
Blue Origin is not the only firm going after the sub-orbital space tourist market. Bezos is competing with the likes of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, which suffered a fatal test flight crash last Fall, as well as XCOR.
Bezos reusability plan is similar in concept to Elon Musk’s rocket reusability plan for his SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, which was most recently attempted on the CRS-6 mission to the International Space Station.
The goal for both Blue Origin and SpaceX is to recover, refurbish, and reuse the rockets and capsules in order to drastically cut the high cost of access to space.
The New Shepard system comprises a pressurized capsule and booster and is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle, according to a description from Blue Origin.
“We continue to be big fans of the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture. We chose VTVL because it’s scalable to very large size.”
Here’s a longer view of the New Shepard maiden test flight:
Video caption: Long distance tracking of Blue Origin’s New Shepard space vehicle as it makes its first flight, carrying its crew capsule to 307,000 feet and returning it safely to Earth on April 29, 2015. Credit: Blue Origin
The test proceeded nearly flawlessly, according to Bezos.
“Guidance, navigation and control was nominal throughout max Q and all of ascent. The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect. Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” wrote Bezos.
The only flaw was a failure to recover the propulsion module.
“Unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent. Fortunately, we’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system,” Bezos explained.
The booster is equipped with landing legs. Two additional boosters are already being manufactured.
Blue Origin is also developing a much more powerful variant, dubbed “Very Big Brother,” that will be capable of launching to orbit.
That rocket architecture will we powered by Blue Origin’s privately developed 550,000-lbf thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine.
The BE-4 has also been selected by United Launch Alliance (ULA) as the first stage powerplant for their newly announced Vulcan rocket that will replace their current stable of Atlas V and Delta IV rockets.
Last September, United Launch Alliance (ULA) CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced a joint effort to development the BE-4 engine, as a powerful new American-built rocket engine that could eventually replace the Russian- built RD-180 engines currently used in the Atlas V rocket and whose future supply is questionable after the Cold War-like tensions with Russia over the annexation of the Crimea and ongoing separatist war in Ukraine.
Competing on cost with SpaceX is another critical goal of the BE-4 engine that cannot be overstated.
First flight of the Vulcan and BE-4 is projected for 2019.
Blue Origin has also worked with NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) in a public-private partnership to develop a crewed capsule to transport astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).
Bezos stated goal is to “develop vehicles and technologies to enable commercial human space transportation.”
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
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