Blue Origin Outlines Results of Crew Capsule Parachute-Fail Landing Test

Blue Origin's Crew Capsule during post landing recovery operations last month after completing a test to prove the Crew Capsule could safely land with only two of its three parachutes open. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s Crew Capsule during post landing recovery operations last month after completing a test to prove the Crew Capsule could safely land with only two of its three parachutes open. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

On June 19, Blue Origin launched their reusable New Shepherd rocket and crew capsule into suborbital space over western Texas, followed minutes later by separate and successful landings of both vehicles. The milestone was another significant step forward for billionaire Jeff Bezos and his Kent, Wash.-based company as they continue development and testing of a reusable and affordable suborbital system catering to space tourism, competing directly with Virgin Galactic in the process.

Launch of Blue Origin's New Shepherd suborbital rocket and capsule June 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepherd suborbital rocket and capsule June 19, 2016. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

During the test, the crew capsule was intentionally forced to land on only two of its three parachutes, something that is a real possibility for future crews, and this week the company outlined some of the results on how the capsule handled the landing.

The rocket itself has now been launched, and landed, four times.

According to Bezos, on a nominal landing and chute deploy, the crew capsule descends at about 16 mph before firing a retrorocket just a few feet above the ground to slow the spacecraft down to 3 mph before it touches down. A ring-shaped crushable bumper made of eight aluminum honeycomb-material segments is mounted on the bottom of the capsule, and absorbs any leftover speed from the descent on touchdown.

“We’ve designed the capsule to ensure astronaut safety not just for a failure of one parachute, but even for a failure of two parachutes,” said Bezos in an email July 20. “In addition to the retrorocket system and the crushable ring, there is an energy absorbing mechanism mounted underneath each seat.”

In the test last month, New Shepherd was launched to 331,501 feet (101,041 meters), or 62.7 miles (101 kilometers), barely clearing the universally agreed 62-mile boundary of space before starting the descent back to Earth. Under the power of only two chutes, with one chute intentionally failed, the capsule was descending at 23 mph before firing its retrorocket, only 7 mph faster than with all three chutes deployed.

“The retrorocket took out most of that velocity, and the crushable ring did the rest of the job,” said Bezos. “Even with one chute out, the crushable barely crushed. When new, the crushable is about 5.5 inches high and can crush down to less than one inch high, providing a constant deceleration force as it crushes. After the mission, the crushable was still over 5 inches high along nearly the entire circumference of the ring.”

Sacrificial bumpers removed from CC after flight for inspection, barely crushed. Photo and Caption Credit: Blue Origin

Sacrificial bumpers removed from CC after flight for inspection, barely crushed. Photo and Caption Credit: Blue Origin

The crew capsule 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, according to Blue Origin.

However, it can also fly small science payloads up to 50 pounds, and they already have.

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.

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 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.

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3 comments to Blue Origin Outlines Results of Crew Capsule Parachute-Fail Landing Test

  • Mei

    I see something genuinely special in this site.

  • Joe

    Good write up Mike.

    Several of us that were working around the old Delta Clipper Project from the 1990’a occasionally (when the New Shepard flies repeatedly) get the feeling we are witnessing what the flight test program for the DC-Y would have been like if the project had not been diverted into the X-33 Program. With the addition of the separately landing capsule.

  • James

    “‘We’ve designed the capsule to ensure astronaut safety not just for a failure of one parachute, but even for a failure of two parachutes,’ said Bezos in an email July 20. ‘In addition to the retrorocket system and the crushable ring, there is an energy absorbing mechanism mounted underneath each seat.'”

    From the above article.

    “Certainly, launch pad leader Guenter Wendt fiercely discounted all of these theories but one: the entanglement of the exterior lanyard. ‘It is the most logical explanation,’ he said, but acquiesced ‘Can we prove it? No.'”

    From: ‘The First Thing I Had Ever Lost’: 55 Years Since Gus Grissom’s Flight in the Liberty Bell (Part 2) By Ben Evans July 24th, 2016
    At: http://www.americaspace.com/?p=94523

    “Colonel Stapp’s favorite takeoff on sober scientific laws—Murphy’s law, Stapp calls it—’Everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong’.”

    From: ‘Murphy’s law’ Wikipedia

    Blue Origin has obviously made some significant risk reduction efforts for future space travelers on “their reusable New Shepherd rocket and crew capsule”.

    However, we need spaceflight risks to be roughly equivalent to those of the airlines to enable the rapid growth of space tourism.

    Is there anything else that might be doable that could improve crew survival rates if a problem occurs that results in three damaged, or entangled, parachutes during the decent after a spaceflight or during an abort situation?

    What is the cross sectional density of the capsule during normal reentry?

    What is the terminal falling velocity of the capsule with non-functioning parachutes?

    What is the terminal falling velocity of the capsule with deployed but entangled and only partially functional parachutes?

    “To slow the descent, first the drogue parachute was deployed, followed by the main parachute. However, due to a defect, the main parachute did not unfold; the exact reason for the main parachute malfunction is disputed.[6][7]”

    And, “Komarov then activated the manually deployed reserve chute, but it became tangled with the drogue chute, which did not release as intended. As a result, the Soyuz reentry module fell to Earth in Orenburg Oblast almost entirely unimpeded, at about 40 m/s (140 km/h; 89 mph).”

    And, “Komarov is commemorated in two memorials left on the Lunar surface: one left at Tranquility Base by Apollo 11,[13] and the Fallen Astronaut plaque left by Apollo 15.”

    From: ‘Soyuz 1’ at Wikipedia

    A Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion, or other very large helicopter, might have the capability of doing an emergency mid-air recovery during an “89 mph” dive if all three parachutes are stretched out in an entangled and nonfunctional situation above the Blue Origin’s falling capsule.

    If the large helicopter is unable to securely grapple or hook onto the nonfunctional parachutes, it could follow the capsule down to the ground, land, and assist in the emergency recovery of the injured crew and in the speedy medical evacuation of the crew members to a trauma hospital.

    Since the crash site of a rapidly descending capsule with failed parachutes will be roughly predictable, perhaps with careful tracking and fast computers, its impact location would become increasingly obvious and very accurately known during the last thirty seconds of its fall, and it might be possible to quickly move a nearby large and high speed movable net or huge inflatable crash bag to the precise position under the falling spacecraft just a second or two prior to its impact.

    Note:

    “Mid-air retrieval is a technique used in atmospheric reentry when the reentering vehicle is incapable of a satisfactory unassisted landing. The vehicle is slowed by means of parachutes, and then a specially-equipped aircraft matches the vehicle’s trajectory and catches it in mid-air.”

    And, “This is a risky technique, and so is only used when other forms of landing are infeasible.”

    And, “The Genesis mission returned a sample of solar wind that was so delicate that it would have been damaged by a parachute landing, so a mid-air retrieval using helicopters flown by Hollywood stunt pilots contracted by NASA was planned. Its parachutes failed to deploy, leading to a disastrous high speed impact with the desert floor which shattered the delicate wafers holding the solar wind samples.”

    From: ‘Mid-air retrieval’ at: Wikipedia