Under a clear sky in West Texas on Wednesday morning, Blue Origin’s autonomous New Shepard launch system made what appeared to be a flawless flight into space and back. After separating from its booster, the spacecraft ascended to an altitude of 106.9 km before returning to Earth by parachute. The booster also made a nominally powered landing.
For Blue Origin, the company’s first flight of its reusable New Shepard system in more than six months served a dual purpose. It provided additional test data for the launch system as the company moves closer to manned flights, and the launch allowed the company to fly eight NASA-sponsored research and technology payloads into space through NASA’s Flight Opportunities program.
During the webcast, Blue Origin’s head of sales, Ariane Cornell, said the company “aimed” to begin human flights aboard New Shepard by the end of 2019, but emphasized that Blue Origin would not compromise on security in order to transfer arbitrary data. to fetch. The company has yet to begin selling tickets for the six-person capsule or set a price for the 11-minute experience that will take passengers above the Kármán line and provide a few minutes of weightlessness.
Unlike some previous test missions, Wednesday’s flight followed the same profile space tourists will take. The vehicles that flew Wednesday were the third New Shepard rocket Blue Origin has built (Tail 3) and the second capsule. This was the fourth flight for both vehicles, which passed several tests last July, including an in-flight abort scenario.
Cornell said Tail 4, the fourth New Shepard booster, has already shipped to the West Texas launch site from the company’s plant in Kent, Washington. It is being tested there and Blue Origin expects Tail 4 to be the booster used to launch humans. Work is underway in Washington on the third capsule, which will likely also be used for human missions.
The company has emphasized that it is not in a “race” with Virgin Galactic, which in December managed to fly its air-launched piloted spacecraft above 50 miles (80 km) for the first time. Virgin Galactic has a list of more than 500 customers who have purchased tickets and may be flying some of those passengers later this year. Virgin says 80 km is high enough to be considered space, but during Wednesday’s webcast, Cornell noted that New Shepard would fly more than 100 km, “the internationally recognized space line.”