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.
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.”
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.