Is this a new dawn for suborbital travel? The Blue Origin company’s New Shepard rocket test vehicle made a successful flight into space on its second mission from its West Texas launch pad on 23 November 2015. Blue Origin aims to develop a series of reusable passenger carrying space vehicles which will be reliable, cheap and safe to operate. The initial aim is to provide for the nebulous but anticipated market for sub-orbital space tourist flights. Later the company hopes to develop vehicles capable of orbital flights.
The Blue Origin team have avoided publicity until recently but for the past year they have been releasing pictures and videos of their New Shepard spacecraft. This is a reusable, vertical takeoff, vertical landing two-part suborbital space vehicle. The two sections of New Shepard are a pressurised crew module or capsule for six passengers (with its own launch escape system) and a propulsion module (or booster rocket) propelled by a Blue Origin BE-3 liquid propellant rocket motor. This motor burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen delivering 490 kN (110 000 lbf) of thrust at full power. In flight the New Shepard is entirely controlled by on-board computers with no input from a pilot or from the ground. The vehicle is named after astronaut Alan Shepard (1923-98) , the first American in space and later commander of Apollo 14.
In commercial service, a New Shepard would be launched to rise in about 110 s to an altitude of 40 km, continuing its upward unpowered flight to an apogee of about 100 km. The crew module separates at this point to descend by parachute while the propulsion module falls back to Earth before restarting its main engine to make a controlled soft landing close to its launch site. The entire flight lasts 10 minutes and reaches a maximum speed of about three times the speed of sound. The New Shepard is not capable of putting payloads into orbit and should not be compared to orbital launch vehicles.
On the craft’s first test flight on 29 April 2015, the unpiloted vertical takeoff and landing rocket reached a maximum altitude of 93.5 km (307 000 ft) and the crew capsule was successfully recovered, however the propulsion module was destroyed in a crash because of a hydraulic failure.
The second New Shepard flight seems to have been a complete success, the vehicle ascended to 329,839ft (100.5km; remember space starts 100km up) and both components were recovered intact. Despite the misleading CGI in the corporate propaganda video, it was again without anyone on board. This remarkable achievement is a step towards Blue Origin’s goal of offering commercial suborbital spaceflights, initially sending payloads for researchers into the upper atmosphere to allow to experiments to be carried out in microgravity (the company claims there is a significant untapped demand for this service) but eventually offering “space tourism” pleasure flights. Eventually Blue Origin hopes to develop new and considerably larger vehicles for travelling into orbit. In preparation for this the company has taken out a 20 year lease on the historic Pad 39A in Florida which was used to launch Apollo and Shuttle missions. The company was founded by billionaire and self-confessed “space geek” Jeff Bezos, who earned his wealth through an earlier highly speculative venture, Amazon.com.
I would expect that it will not be long before Blue Origin sends a person (possibly even Bezos himself) above the Karman line to claim the title of astronaut.
(Article by Colin Johnston, Science Education Director)