In its push toward the day when “millions of people are living and working in space,” the New Shepard Team at Blue Origin flew their vehicle on five suborbital missions in a row without pulling the BE-3 engine, demonstrating true reusability.
On the final mission—a launch abort test on Oct. 5, 2016—the capsule fired the solid-fuel escape motor that protrudes into the crew cabin like a coffee table. It pulled away from the cryogenic-fueled booster about 45 sec. after launch, at maximum dynamic pressure. The capsule went supersonic as it veered up and to the side to avoid its rising reusable launcher.
Despite that jolt, the launcher managed to resist the loads and steady itself for a picture-perfect tail-down landing at the company’s remote test area in West Texas. Blue Origin engineers say they were not confident of the outcome, and the landing capped the company’s laureate-winning unmanned flight-test campaign.
The test series included a pad-escape exercise in 2012 and several static ground tests, in keeping with Blue Origin’s careful, stepwise approach to human suborbital spaceflight. The abort system, which Blue Origin compares to the passenger-safety airbags in an automobile, is designed to enable paying passengers with relatively little preflight training to survive a catastrophic launch vehicle failure.
New Shepard is only the first step in fulfilling Blue Origin owner Jeff Bezos’ vision of using ever larger reusable rockets to send an entire economy into Earth orbit and beyond. The Amazon founder is investing his personal fortune to bankroll development of a follow-on rocket engine—the hydrocarbon-fueled BE-4—that may replace Russia’s RD-180 as the powerplant used to launch U.S. national security payloads on the planned United Launch Alliance Vulcan vehicle.
Seven of the big new engines are baselined for the next stop on Blue’s path to space—the New Glenn orbital launcher. Originally dubbed the “very big brother” inside the company’s Kent, Washington, factory, the New Glenn will be designed to generate 3.85 million lb. thrust at liftoff. Two versions are planned, a two-stage all-hydrocarbon version for launches to low Earth orbit, and a three-stage version for missions to the Moon and probably beyond.
Work is underway on a factory, test and launch complex at Cape Canaveral. Bezos’s secretive team also is at work on an even larger launcher that might be able to reach Mars with colony-size payloads. In keeping with its practice of naming launchers for pioneering U.S. astronauts, Blue Origin will call it New Armstrong.
The other Space Laureate finalists were: The Juno Team on’s Discovery program, for setting a precedent by using only solar arrays for power on missions to the outer Solar System; ’s , for the Dawn orbiter, the first space probe to orbit two extra terrestrial bodies; and , for the recovery of multiple Falcon 9 first stages on land and at sea—and for the first sale of a reused booster to a customer.