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Blue Origin makes a fibber out of me, and I’m OK with that

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q - the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure - the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Just as the vehicle was passing through max Q – the area of greatest aerodynamic pressure – the abort command was issued. Credit: Blue Origin

Is Blue Origin imbued with the spiritual DNA of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, because they sure know how to make the improbable happen. While the company was fairly certain of a successful outcome for the New Shepard spacecraft in the in-flight abort test, the prognosis for the booster was far less rosy.

“This test will probably destroy the booster,” stated company founder Jeff Bezos in an email release early in September 2016.

Really, Mr. Bezos…really?

As if in defiance of those predictions, the booster continued its flight, even after being blasted with 70,000 pounds of thrust from the abort motor and having to fly with a decidedly un-aerodynamic leading edge.

The spacecraft rapidly zipped away from the “stricken” booster, soon reaching its apogee then returning to Earth under parachute. Other than the firing of the abort motor itself and not reaching space, the decent can be described as nominal and uneventful. This was the primary goal of this test, and demonstrated the vehicle’s capability to protect craft and crew should a problem occur with the rocket.

The booster, now free of its 8,000 pound spacecraft, actually had to reduce throttle on its lone BE-3 engine so as to not over-boost and go higher than intended. At this point in the flight profile, it was no different than the four previous New Shepard missions.

With little drama, the booster landed under its own power, capping off a successful test and earning itself a place of honor in a museum.

So what’s the genesis of my consternation? Well, not only do I write for The Liftoff Report, but I also provide content for SpaceFlight Insider, and was asked to write about this test. Now, you have to understand that, though I love all things spaceflight, it’s not my career — and I would be at work when the test occurred.

However, being the clever person that I am, I pre-wrote the piece, assuming that the booster would be lost in the process. Somewhat covering my bases, I included two scenarios: booster breaks-up at altitude after abort motor fires, or the booster survives the abort but the flight computer cannot regain control authority and the booster smacks into the desert floor.

So, being the dutiful writer that I am, I signed-off on the piece, turning it over to the editors to add details and pictures at the conclusion of the test. Smart, right?

Obviously not.

Thankfully, the editors at SpaceFlight Insider were able to quickly modify the piece to match reality. With that, a hearty “Thanks!” to the staff at SFI for making the necessary corrections, and a big round of congratulations to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin may have made a fibber out of me, but I’m OK with that.

Blue Origin announces orbital-class rocket

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

The announcement

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, might be known for keeping a relatively low profile insofar as Blue Origin is concerned, but one cannot accuse him of not knowing how to make an entrance. In a surprise email on September 12, 2016, Bezos revealed to the world the company’s plan to build and launch its first orbital-class rocket by the end of this decade: the New Glenn.

Named after the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn, the rocket will be the company’s entry into the reusable orbital-class rocket market, currently occupied by a single player — SpaceX. Although Blue Origin was the first commercial company to launch a rocket and crew-capable vehicle into space and recover both for later re-use, those flights were only suborbital.

Blue Origin has taken the expertise gained from the suborbital flights of their New Shepard vehicle — named after America’s first suborbital astronaut, Alan Shepard — and scaled it up just a bit. OK, perhaps more than “just a bit.” New Shepard’s booster, sans capsule, tops out at approximately 52 feet (16 meters), whereas the smaller version of New Glenn towers at 270 feet (82 meters). It would appear as if Blue Origin is bypassing the small-to-medium class of launch vehicles and going straight to a heavy/super heavy lift vehicle (HLV/SHLV) rocket, right? Read More →

Blue Origin to test in-flight abort system

The New Shepard's pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

The New Shepard’s pusher-style abort motor gets activated in this pad abort test in 2012. Credit: Blue Origin

As the New Shepard spacecraft and booster accelerate through the most aerodynamically stressful part of their launch profile, also known as “max Q,” a flight computer detects an anomaly and triggers an in-flight abort. The crew module shoots away from the stricken booster, allowing the gumdrop-shaped capsule to safely return its occupants to a safe recovery. Although notional in description, this is what Blue Origin plans to verify in an early October 2016 test flight of the company’s reusable rocket and spacecraft.

The company already performed a pad abort test, nearly four years ago, during which the abort motor fired for nearly 2 seconds and lofted the craft to an altitude of 2,307 feet (703 meters). The capsule landed under its triple-parachute canopy 1,630 feet (497 meters) away from the pad.

Unlike the traditional tower-based, towed-tractor style abort systems used during Mercury and Apollo programs – and soon on NASA’s Orion spacecraft riding atop the Space Launch System – Blue Origin’s abort motor is integrated into the crew vehicle and is a “pusher” system: it pushes the capsule from below rather than pulling it from above as with the tower systems.

Read more in my full write-up for SpaceFlight Insider.

Blue Origin successfully tests landing with failed parachute

The New Shepard capsule suspended during post-landing recovery operations. Note the “bumper ring” on the bottom of the capsule. Image credit: Blue Origin

The New Shepard capsule suspended during post-landing recovery operations. Note the “bumper ring” on the bottom of the capsule. Image credit: Blue Origin

Landing with a failed parachute is not a condition a company would normally want their spacecraft to encounter, but that was exactly the scenario Blue Origin planned for the fourth test flight of their New Shepard vehicle last month. After a month of analysis, Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, gave the word in an e-mail update that the test was a success.

You can read more in my full write-up at SpaceFlight Insider.