Blue Origin is set to test an upgraded capsule on a suborbital spaceflight Thursday over West Texas, validating new environmental control systems, in-cabin displays, and passenger communication systems before Jeff Bezos’s space company begins flying people.
The test launch is scheduled for 11:57 a.m. EST (10:57 a.m. CST; 1657 GMT) Thursday from Blue Origin’s private launch site north of Van Horn, Texas, east of El Paso, the company said.
Blue Origin said it plans to provide a live webcast of the mission, which will be available at the top of this page.
Powered by a hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine, a single-stage New Shepard booster will blast off from West Texas and is expected to propel the capsule to an altitude of more than 62 miles, or 100 kilometers, above the internationally-recognized boundary of space.
The spacecraft will separate from the rocket as both vehicles coast to peak altitude, then begin their descent back to Earth.
The reusable New Shepard rocket will deploy air brakes and reignite its engine for a vertical landing back at Blue Origin’s commercial spaceport, while the capsule will unfurl parachutes and briefly fire its own braking rockets to cushion its touchdown on the desert landscape nearby.
Assuming it follows the flight plan of Blue Origin’s previous test launches, the entire mission will last around 10 minutes from liftoff until landing of the capsule.
It will be the 14th flight of a suborbital New Shepard rocket and capsule since 2015, but the test mission Thursday is expected to debut a new spacecraft with all the accoutrements needed to carry people.
In a statement released before the launch, Blue Origin did not confirm it will fly a brand new capsule Thursday, but sources said that is the plan. The new capsule is named “RSS First Step,” with RSS standing for Reusable Spaceship.
“For this mission, the crew capsule will be outfitted with upgrades for the astronaut experience as the program nears human space flight,” Blue Origin said in a statement. “The upgrades include improvements to environmental features such as acoustics and temperature regulation inside the capsule, crew display panels, and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat.
“The mission will also test a number of astronaut communication and safety alert systems. The capsule will be outfitted with six seats, including one occupied by Mannequin Skywalker,” the company said, referring to a flight suit-clad test dummy Blue Origin has flown on past launches.
File photo of a New Shepard launch. Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin is also flying more than 50,000 postcards from students around the world, submitted to launch into space through Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future. The postcards, some of which will fly in Mannequin Skywalker’s pockets, will be returned to the students after flying in space.
Founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos in 2000, Blue Origin is in the final phase of testing the suborbital New Shepard booster and capsule before permitting people to ride the rocket into space.
Paying space tourists and commercial and government researchers could be passengers on future New Shepard flights, which will give customers about three-to-four minutes of microgravity as the capsule reaches apogee, or the highest point of its ballistic arc. Past New Shepard test missions have flown experiments for NASA and universities.
Blue Origin is leading a team of companies developing a human-rated lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, alongside aerospace contractors Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Industrial teams led by Dynetics and SpaceX are also vying for a NASA contract to build the human-rated Moon lander.
The company is also developing a huge orbital-class rocket named New Glenn, which will launch large satellites from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida.