Amazon CEO Jeff Bezo’s spaceflight company Blue Origin on Sunday launched the upgraded version of its passenger Crew Capsule 2.0 perched atop its next-generation New Shepard rocket.
Powered by a single hydrogen-fuel BE-3 engine, capable of generating 110,000 pounds of thrust, the New Shepard blasted off from the company’s West Texas launch facility in Van Horn at 1:06 p.m. EDT, after thunderstorms put paid to the scheduled 9:45 am (EDT) launch.
“Another spectacular test mission,” said Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell during the launch webcast. “Everything looks nominal from here.”
Both rocket and payload had been used in a previous test launch, as recently as December, last year, when they lifted off from the same facility with the same “instrumented dummy” passenger which goes by the nickname “Mannequin Skywalker.”
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) April 30, 2018
The Sunday launch saw the rocket reach a record altitude – at least as far as Blue Origin launches are concerned – of almost 66 miles (106 km), before making it back to Earth.
“Today, we’re going to push the system a little bit harder,” Cornell said.
It was all over in a matter of a few seconds over 10 minutes, which saw the New Shepard separate from the second stage at a height of about 47 miles, then continue on its way till it reached the record 66.5 miles before returning back to terra firma for a smooth, tail first vertical landing.
The capsule made its descent back to Earth a few minutes later, helped by parachutes and retrorockets to cushion its landing.
Touchdown of the New Shepard Booster and Crew Capsule! Congrats to Team Blue and our payload customers on board today!
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) April 29, 2018
While the previous version had painted-on windows, the New Shepard capsule, according to Blue Origin, is equipped with “the largest windows in space,” measuring 110 and 73 centimeters in height and width, respectively.
The windows bit does make a lot of sense when you consider Blue Origin’s future plans of suborbital commercial passenger flights to space, which could likely happen as early as this year.
The capsule’s 530 cubic feet interior is ample enough to seat 6 paying passengers, as well as allowing them the room to float freely and turn weightless somersaults, with the large windows in place for a space perspective of our very own blue planet.
In addition to “Mannequin Skywalker,” the New Shepard capsule carried a whole lot of experimental gadgetry on behalf of NASA, including components that the agency plans to deploy onboard the Orion deep space capsule, as well as instrumentation for recording pressure, acceleration, acoustics, and other relevant data.
Mannequin Skywalker is ready for his 2nd mission on board New Shepard. He’s a little sensitive about being called a “dummy”, as he will be conducting astronaut telemetry and science studies – a very important job! pic.twitter.com/h2ncpGWaTi
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) April 28, 2018
Other research-specific payloads included water fleas to test the effects of microgravity on the invertebrates, including equipment to demonstrate the viability of Wi-Fi in the space environment.
As was the purpose on its first flight, “Mannequin Skywalker” was there, with all the necessary instrumentation strapped to it, to test the rigors of spaceflight and their likely impact on a human passenger.
Watch the launch here
While the first New Shepard mission in April 2015 ended up in disaster for the booster stage, the subsequent seven launches, including Sunday’s flight with Crew Capsule 2.0, which was the second with the latest versions of the booster and capsule, have all met the company’s mission expectations. Here’s a quick recap of all eight of them.
New Shepard Test Flight 1 (April 19, 2015)
The first New Shepard rocket (NS1) test flight conducted on April 19, 2015, which saw the unmanned space vehicle reach its planned test altitude of 93.5 km at a top speed of Mach 3 (3675 km/h), was a partial success.
While the company was able to retrieve the capsule, after it landed using a parachute, it was not able to recover the booster, which crashed on landing due to hydraulic failure in the vehicle control system.
New Shepard Test Flight 2 (November 23, 2015)
After losing NS1, Blue Horizon built the second New Shephard (NS2), launching it on November 23, 2015, when it went beyond the 100-kilometer mark and, both, booster and capsule landed back successfully. This was Blue Horizon’s first ever successful retrieval of the reusable booster.
New Shepard Test Flight 3 (January 22, 2016)
NS2 was used again on January 22, 2016, test flight – a demonstration and proof of the re-usability of the booster. This time around, New Shepard reached the apogee of 101.7 km, (the highest point in the development stage) and again the booster and capsule returned to Earth for retrieval and reuse.
New Shepard Test Flight 4 (April 2, 2016)
On April 2, 2016, NS2 was deployed for the third time, going beyond the 330,000 feet mark, with the booster stage and capsule returning for the usual powered landing and parachute touchdown, respectively.
New Shepard Test Flight 5 (June 19, 2016)
The fifth New Shepard launch, overall, – fourth for NS2 – took place on June 19, 2016, with the same success in terms of altitude reached and booster retrieval.
New Shepard Test Flight 6 (October 5, 2016)
NS2 was retired after its fifth and final test flight on October 5, 2016 – again a success in terms of achieving its test mission and returning safely back to the planet.
New Shepard Test Flight 7 (December 12, 2017)
The seventh New Shepard mission – the first for the brand new NS3 and upgraded Crew Capsule 2.0 – was successfully accomplished on Tuesday, December 12, 2017, with the new booster returning for its vertical powered-landing while the capsule, along with its dummy passenger, Mannequin Skywalker, landed with parachutes.
New Shepard Test Flight 8 (April 29, 2018)
That’s the Sunday launch discussed earlier – the eighth overall, and the second for the latest New Shepard and the upgraded Crew Capsule 2.0 and its passenger, Mannequin Skywalker.
About Blue Origin
As part of his fascination with space travel and exploration, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos founded the start-up company, Blue Origin in 2000.
He is also known to have had an early interest in the idea of “space hotels, amusement parks, colonies and small cities for 2-3 million people orbiting Earth.”
After keeping it hidden from the public eye for over half a decade, Blue Origin became common knowledge in 2006 when a large tract of land was purchased in West Texas to build the infrastructure for launch and test purposes.
Blue Origin is basically a privately funded aerospace manufacturing and spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington.
The company has been exploring and building technologies to enable humans to get access to space travel by lowering costs and increasing reliability factors.
The company is approaching its futuristic dreams by adopting an incremental approach, taking it ahead step by step – hence, the company’s motto, “Gradatim Ferociter” – Latin for step-by-step.
Keeping the company’s step-by-step approach in mind, the company’s initial focus has been on sub-orbital spaceflight tests.