Blue Origin’s effort to send tourists to the edge of space moved one step closer Wednesday, when its previously-flown NS4 New Shepard launch vehicle roared aloft from Launch Site One in West Texas, kicking off this particular booster’s second flight of the year. It also marked the 15th launch of a New Shepard vehicle (NS-15) since April 2015 and the 14th successful vertical landing and intact recovery of a booster. And with a group of Blue Origin “stand-in astronauts” participating in the pre-launch strap-in and post-landing egress processes, yesterday’s mission offered a closer analog than ever before for what a human mission may look like.
Powered uphill by more than 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg) of thrust from its liquid-fueled BE-3 main engine, the Kent, Wash.-headquartered organization hopes that the booster’s next mission might carry humans to suborbital space, just as New Shepard’s namesake—Project Mercury astronaut Al Shepard—did 60 years ago.
During NS-15, the New Shepard booster attained an altitude of 66.4 miles (106 km) Above Mean Sea Level, equivalent to roughly 350,840 feet. And the attached Crew Capsule—whose six seats were filled with the dummy “Mannequin Skywalker” for the flight itself, three seats laden with cargo and two empty seats which had earlier briefly been occupied on the pad by a group of Blue Origin “stand-in astronauts”—reached 66.49 miles (107 km) Above Mean Sea Level, equivalent to 351,221 feet. All told, the NS-15 mission lasted a little over ten minutes and achieved a maximum ascent velocity of 2,234 mph (3,596 km/h).
Described as “a verification step” for both the vehicle and the operations infrastructure before flying humans, Wednesday’s NS-15 mission featured a full plate of operational exercises on the ground before launch and after recovery. Prior to liftoff, a group of Blue Origin executives stood in as astronauts, ascending the launch tower, climbing aboard the six-seater Crew Capsule, buckling their harnesses and conducting communications checks with the Capsule Communicator (CAPCOM).
The Tower Operations Team then prepared the cabin for launch and briefly closed the hatch, then later reopened it to allow the personnel to disembark. And following the capsule’s smooth touchdown, the stand-in astronauts clambered back into their seats to rehearse hatch-opening protocols and a safe and efficient post-landing egress.
It marks a significant milestone as Blue Origin aims to send crews of up to six passengers on suborbital trips to the edge of space. The 59-foot-tall (18-meter) NS1 New Shepard booster first flew back in April 2015, successfully passing an altitude of 62.4 miles (100.5 km) and thereby exceeding the “Kármán Line”, which is generally recognized to be the edge of space.
However, a loss of hydraulic pressure during descent meant the booster was not recovered. Seven months later, the NS2 booster flew its first mission flawlessly and came home to a smooth landing. In doing so, it marked the first occasion that a suborbital-class booster had returned from space and achieved a vertical landing.
Over the course of the next year, the NS2 vehicle flew four more times, chalking up several significant flight milestones as Blue Origin worked toward its plan for suborbital human spaceflight. The descent profile of the Crew Capsule was tested under two parachutes (rather than the nominal three) and on NS2’s fifth and last mission in October 2016 a successful trial of New Shepard’s in-flight abort system was conducted.
Across those missions, the NS2 vehicle attained peak altitudes of 64.2 miles (103.4 km)—more than 339,000 feet—and saw the Crew Capsule put through a particularly punishing series of evaluations at the point of maximum aerodynamic turbulence (“Max Q”), as well as a high-speed separation event.
With NS2 retired in October 2016, the NS3 vehicle came online and flew its maiden voyage in December 2017. It went on to complete no less than seven missions by October 2020, achieving a maximum altitude of 73.8 miles (118.8 km), or roughly 389,850 feet, and demonstrated the upgraded Crew Capsule 2.0 and a heavily instrumented test dummy, nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker”. And on 14 January 2021, the NS4 vehicle—widely expected to be the first New Shepard to carry humans—made its first uncrewed qualification flight, reaching an altitude of 65.75 miles (105.82 km), about 347,150 feet.
During the flight, the Crew Capsule was outfitted with speakers, microphones and push-to-talk buttons at each of the six passenger seats, which will enable future astronauts to communicate with Mission Control. It also marked the first use of a crew alert system, with a panel at each seat to relay important safety messages.
And it benefited from cushioned wall-linings and sound suppression device to reduce ambient noise levels and cooling and humidity controls to regulate temperature, prevent window-fogging and scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Interestingly, January’s launch also saw the New Shepard booster rotate at a couple degrees per second during its ascent phase, which on human flights will afford passengers spectacular 360-degree views.
Preparations for Wednesday’s launch ran smoothly, with the exception of a longer-than-intended hold in the countdown. Four Blue Origin personnel—New Shepard designer Gary Lai, Vice President of Legal and Compliance Audrey Powers, Chief Financial Officer Susan Knapp and Vice President of Sales Clay Mowry—took the 2-mile (3.2 km) ride from “The Barn” where the booster is prepared out to the launch pad.
They ascended the four flights of stairs to the crew access arm, where Lai and Powers actually boarded the Crew Capsule and pressed into strap-in and communications checks with CAPCOM Sarah Knights. They were assisted by the Tower Operations Team and by “Crew Member No. 7”, Kevin Sproge. Although the Crew Capsule has six seats, one was occupied by Mannequin Skywalker and three others by boxes of kids’ postcards. The stand-in astronauts then disembarked and, together with the tower team, departed the pad ahead of liftoff.
Two minutes before liftoff, New Shepard went into autonmous mode and the gantry was retracted away. The vehicle went onto internal guidance control at T-16 seconds.
At four seconds, the command for Engine Start was issued and the single BE-3 engine came alive with more than 110,000 pounds (50,000 kg) of thrust, its almost-colorless exhaust blazing furiously. Liftoff of the NS-15 mission—the second flight by the NS4 New Shepard vehicle—was followed by an astonishingly rapid ascent. Fueled by a mixture of liquid oxygen and hydrogen, the engine has a long and convoluted evolution. Fired on the ground to a full “mission duty cycle” for the first time back in December 2013, it completed formal acceptance trials in April 2015, by which point it had logged 450 tests and over 30,000 seconds’ worth of “burn-time”.
Shutdown of the BE-3 engine occurred on time at T+2 minutes and 20 seconds, by which point New Shepard had passed 200,000 feet (some 37.8 miles or 60.9 km). A minute later, it officially crossed the Kármán Line and reached its highest point (or “apogee”) shortly thereafter. The Crew Capsule separated from the booster as the pair began their descent home. As planned, the BE-3 engine was briefly re-lit at T+7 minutes and the booster executed a perfect landing a few seconds thereafter at a speed of just 5 mph (8 km/h). Meanwhile, the Crew Capsule descended beneath its three parachutes and landed at T+10 minutes and 10 seconds.