On 23 November, the American firm Blue Origin conducted a full test of its New Shepard rocket and capsule designed for space tourism. The (empty) capsule exceeded an altitude of 100 km and returned to earth, as did the rocket.
Until now, Blue Origin has been a rather secretive player in the space industry. But the company created by Jeff Bezos (founder of the online sales giant, Amazon) does not intend to remain in the shadows for long. In Texas, Blue Origin is testing New Shepard, a spacecraft designed to carry 6 passengers to an altitude of over 100 km without entering orbit. The space tourists transported in the capsule with its large portholes will see the curvature of the Earth, the dark sky even in the middle of the day and will float in weightlessness for 4 minutes before returning to a spot not far from their departure site. On 29 April, a first empty test flight (without passengers) took place without incident with the capsule reaching 95 km, which is 5 km short of the accepted boundary of space. However, the company failed to recover the rocket and Blue Origin has to be able to reuse this for its suborbital space tourism service to be profitable (otherwise it would be too costly to run).
On 23 November, New Shepard’s second flight this time ended in a double success for Jeff Bezos’ initiative. Not only did the capsule exceed the 100 km limit (by 500 m), but the rocket also returned as planned and landed! Blue Origin has therefore taken a decisive step towards the reuse of the launch vehicle part of the spacecraft. The video below summarises the flight of 23 November.
A few comments about this video which is also used to promote Blue Origin’s future space tourism service.
At the 37th second, the person who enters the control centre is none other than Jeff Bezos himself. At 1 minute and 17 seconds, the simulated views (identified by the word “simulation” in the lower right of the video) show what New Shepard’s passengers would experience. The capsule then returns to earth beneath parachutes. But the most astonishing thing is undoubtedly the return of the rocket which, after slowing using integrated braking fins (that are seen deploying during tests before launch), completed an impressive final braking by re-igniting its BE-3 engine (which runs on liquid oxygen and hydrogen, like the Ariane 5 Vulcain 2, although the latter is more powerful). There is also a trajectory adjustment which allows the rocket to land right on the circular arrival platform!
With this second fully successful flight, Blue Origin takes the lead over its competitor Virgin Galactic whose programme has been delayed following the destruction of its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane just over a year ago in October 2014.
Jeff Bezos’ ambitions in space with Blue Origin go well beyond a suborbital space tourism service from Texas (for which the price is still to be released). Indeed, on 15 September, Jeff Bezos was welcomed with great fanfare in Florida when his firm obtained an agreement to use the Complex 36 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station right next to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (see this article). This time, and from this flight base, Blue Origin is targeting Earth’s orbit (satellites and manned flights) with the intention of also recovering the first stage of a future launch vehicle in order to lower the cost of accessing space.