SPACE

Watch as Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin clears another space tourism hurdle with successful in-flight escape test

The company’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is intended to take tourists into space one day

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 9:16am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2016, 11:57am

Jeff Bezos’s space company, Blue Origin, successfully tested its in-flight escape system for the first time on Wednesday morning, landing its crew capsule safely on the ground. It also safely landed its New Shepard reusable rocket booster, which it had expected would explode. Both vehicles are to be retired after this flight.

The company’s New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle is intended to take tourists into space one day.

After three delays, including one that lasted about 20 minutes, the Kent, Washington, firm launched the New Shepard vehicle from its engine and flight test facility in Van Horn, Texas.

They absolutely intend to launch human beings in New Shepard. This flight goes a long way to proving it’s safe
Phil Smith, space analyst

Once the rocket reached 16,000 feet about 45 seconds after lift-off, Blue Origin triggered an escape command. The crew capsule – which, for the test, was not manned – separated from the booster powered by the capsule’s solid rocket motor. It coasted briefly before parachutes helped the capsule descend to the ground.

The booster continued its flight, then hit its maximum altitude and touched down on the ground about seven-and-a-half minutes after the launch.

Wednesday marked this New Shepard rocket booster’s fifth and final flight. Before the launch, Bezos kept expectations low about the booster’s ability to land this time, saying it wasn’t designed to survive an in-flight escape.

The capsule’s escape motor will be slammed with “70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust,” he said in a blog post last month. The aerodynamic shape of the booster also changes after the crew capsule jets off during a time of maximum pressure on the rocket. If it tilts too much, the rocket booster automatically cuts thrust to the engine, and falls to the ground.

“We’d really like to retire it after this test and put it in a museum,” Bezos said in the post. “Sadly, that’s not likely.”

Announcers on Wednesday’s live launch webcast reiterated Bezos’s point, saying that the day’s mission was focused solely on recovering the crew capsule.

The booster’s successful landing on Wednesday was a pleasant surprise. It also helps validate Blue Origin’s technology, said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at aerospace consulting firm the Tauri Group.

“It’s definitely a proof of concept and good news,” he said. “They absolutely intend to launch human beings in New Shepard. This flight goes a long way to proving it’s safe.”

Beyond space tourism, Amazon founder Bezos also has plans to develop a new orbital reusable rocket called New Glenn, which is designed to launch commercial satellites as well as take humans into space.

During the live webcast of Wednesday’s launch, announcers said tourists who buy tickets for New Shepard will get priority for riding on New Glenn. A ticket price was not mentioned.

New Glenn could emerge as a competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, as both rockets are set to have heavy-lift capability, Smith said. Bezos has said New Glenn will make its first flight “before the end of the decade”. Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, is set to launch Falcon Heavy for the first time early next year.