With little fanfare, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin conducted the first launch of its New Shepard space vehicle last week, on April 29 from the company's spaceport in West Texas. The suborbital test flight was mostly a success, one that will likely worry Virgin Galactic if it is paying attention. Shortly after conducting the test flight, Blue Origin put up marketing material and started collecting names and addresses for "early access" to seat pricing and tickets. The company may beat Virgin Galactic to flying paid tourists on short-hop space flights.
The first developmental test flight of New Shepard, a fully reusable single-stage rocket with a crew capsule, traveled at a speed of Mach 3 to a planned test altitude of 307,000 feet. The first stage used a single liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine that performed nominal—space geek speak for "just fine"—throughout the flight, but the stage lost hydraulic pressure on descent. Plans were for the first stage to perform a vertical landing, so it could be recovered and reused, but it apparently crashed.
Blue Origin is not sweating the loss of the first stage, noting that they've been working on an improved hydraulic system and are assembling two more "propulsion modules" so they will be ready to fly again soon.
The unmanned crew capsule hit all of its marks, including separating from the first stage, then returning back to earth on a trio of parachutes with a retrorocket slow-down when it gets close to the ground. The New Shepard capsule is designed to take up to six paying passengers to 100 kilometers above the Earth—the magic line that defines space—for a weightless stint, looking out the huge capsule's windows before returning to Earth. A Boeing (News - Alert) 747 has windows that are 10.8 by 15.3 inches while Blue's capsule is more than double the size at 28.6 by 42.7 inches.
Short-hop tourist flights are only the tip of Blue Origin's suborbital story. NASA and the research community will be able to book space for suborbital experiments, getting several minutes of zero-g time without the cost and complexity of going into orbit or having to ride a roller-coaster "Vomit Comet" flight path aboard a converted jetliner to scrape up 25 seconds of weightlessness at a time.
Blue Origin hasn't said when it will start booking tickets, but a number of unmanned test flights have to take place before paying customers can start flying. It could be two or more years before the first people get a ride into space.
The New Shepard is also a proving ground for Blue Origin orbital spaceflight technology. The BE-3 engine, the first new U.S. liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine built from scratch in decades, will likely show up in a the second stage of a larger Blue Origin rocket and is a candidate to be used in United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Vulcan second state in the 2020s.
ULA is also planning to use the Blue Origin's BE-4 liquid oxygen/liquid methane main rocket engine in the Vulcan, replacing Russian-made engines with USA hardware. Successful operations of BE-3 and suborbital flights give ULA added confidence in working with Blue Origin as a major hardware partner.
Similarly, New Shepard capsule development will roll into a passenger carrying space capsule capable of operating in low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Virgin Galactic also has eyes on the suborbital flight business. The company's first SpaceShipTwo flew a total of three rocket powered test flights before encountering disaster on the forth flight, breaking up in flight. A new SpaceShipTwo is under construction, but isn't expected to be available for first flight until the fall of this year or later. It will have to go through its own set of certification flights before loaded up with rocket fuel to cross over the magical 100 kilometer line.
Blue Origin has already demonstrated it can put a capsule up to 307,000 feet, just short of the magic 382,084 feet (100 kilometers) that qualifies humans for astronaut wings. It already has two more first stages in build. The question becomes how fast the company can (safely) work through a test schedule, but it becomes clear that Virgin and Blue Origin may be unwittingly in a race for a commercial "first flight" to space.