Today marks the third time in just over four months that Blue Origin has successfully launched and landed its New Shepard spacecraft and propulsion module. The launch and landing took place in a remote area of West Texas and is an important step for a company looking to dramatically reduce the cost of access to space.
Before last November, when New Shepard made its historic maiden flight, it was unclear how difficult it would be to land a rocket vertically on the ground after being sent into space. But then Blue Origin did it. A month later, SpaceX performed the same with its Falcon 9, a much larger and more powerful booster that had just launched a payload into orbit.
That led to the next hurdle: Could rockets be refurbished quickly and relatively cheaply for subsequent flights? This was a stumbling block for the space shuttle, which required hundreds of millions of dollars in engine testing and modification after each flight. Blue Origin has also started to clear this hurdle. First, it flew the New Shepard module again in January, a lead time of about two months.
During a test flight, as New Shepard approaches the 100 km line marking the internationally accepted limit of space, a capsule capable of carrying six people separates from the rocket. This capsule will fly into space for a few minutes before parachute-jumping back to Earth. Meanwhile, the propulsion module’s air brakes activate and as it returns to the ground, the module’s BE-3 engine fires to slow its descent and make a vertical landing.
After the flight in January, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos told Ars that refurbishing the propulsion module after that first flight cost “in the small tens of thousands of dollars.” His technicians didn’t even remove the engine from the vehicle. “We inspected it and said, ‘Let’s go.’ It is designed to be reusable from the start.”
Blue Origin upped the ante on Saturday by testing its engine in a non-nominal flight. The company’s engineers restarted the BE-3 engine just 1,100 meters above the ground at high thrust. Had the test failed, the missile would have crashed, but everything went smoothly. Bezos apparently expected it because for the first time he announced a launch test in advance. He tweeted details as the missile lifted off and returned to the West Texas location.
Blue Origin even took two research payloads on Saturday’s flight: The Southwest Research Institute’s “Box of Rocks” experiment will test how rocky debris settles in microgravity, while the University of Central’s “Collisions into Dust” experiment Florida aims to better understand how large bodies interacted with dust in the early solar system. This marks the beginning of Blue Origin’s plan to use New Shepard as a reliable test bed for suborbital science experiments.
Saturday’s flight is important not only because it continues to demonstrate the potential of reusable rockets to lower the cost of access to space. Regular flights have an additional, crucial advantage for any launch system. The more New Shepard flies, the more confidence Blue Origin will have in its reliability and safety, which is vital for a company hoping to begin crewed test flights in 2017 and perhaps take paying passengers to space as early as 2018.
“One of the things I feel very, very strongly about is that if you want to get good at spaceflight, you have to practice,” Bezos explained to Ars in March. “If you’ve ever had surgery, there are very good statistics that suggest you find a surgeon who does it five times a week, preferably 10 or 20 times a week, because that’s the kind of rate that we humans are very good at. getting into things “We need to get to the point where we fly more than 100 times a year. We want a vehicle that we can fly again and again with only the lightest of refurbishments.”
With Saturday’s test, Blue Origin continued to practice and apparently all went well. It is pursuing a design goal of 100 missions for every New Shepard system it builds and eventually puts into commercial service. After three flights with an experimental vehicle, that doesn’t seem so crazy.