Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos got one step closer to realizing his long-time dream of ferrying paying passengers to space when on Thursday his spaceflight company Blue Origin launched and landed its retrievable New Shephard booster and capsule for the fifth consecutive time.
It also marked the Kent-Washington-headquartered company’s eleventh test launch, overall, since April 2015.
The rocket lifted off from the company’s west-Texas launch facility at 9:32 a.m. EDT (1332 GMT; 8:32 a.m. local time) on May 2, carrying 38 experimental payloads to an altitude of 65.5 miles – beyond the internationally recognized Kármán line at 62.13 miles above sea-level.
On reaching its apogee (the highest point in a rocket’s trajectory), the booster separated from the capsule to return back to Earth for a picture-perfect rocket-powered landing, touching down tail first on its designated concrete pad.
The capsule carrying the experimental payloads followed soon after, making a soft touchdown with the help of three parachutes it deployed on re-entry.
The entire sequence, right from launch to separation to landing and recovery of booster and capsule, took just over ten minutes.
“A beautiful, beautiful launch of the booster and capsule today. Incredible,” said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and orbital sales. “This has been quite the morning.”
According to Blue Origin, the Crew Capsule 2.0 used for the mission boasts “the largest windows in space,” measuring 110 centimeters in height and 73 centimeters in width. The previous version had painted-on windows.
Considering the company’s future plan of carrying paying passengers to space, which could happen as early as next year, the windows bit does make a lot of sense.
As explained on the Blue Origin website, “the New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet – offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.”
Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and kept it away from the public eye until 2006 when he purchased a large tract of land in west Texas to build the infrastructure for launch and test purposes.
The company has been exploring and building technologies to enable humans to get access to space travel by lowering costs and increasing the reliability factor.
While last week’s launch involved the third iteration of the New Shephard launch vehicle (NS3), a fourth version is being built for the intended space tourism flights.
Here’s a quick look at all the eleven launches since April 2015, including the last five involving the third-gen New Shephard booster, the NS3, and the Crew Capsule 2.0.
New Shepard Test Flight 1 (April 19, 2015)
The first New Shepard (NS1) test flight, which saw the unmanned space vehicle reach its intended test apogee of 93.5 km at a top speed of Mach 3 (3675 km/h), was a partial success.
While the company was able to achieve a parachute-aided landing of the capsule, it failed to land the booster, which crashed due to hydraulic failure in the vehicle control system.
New Shepard Test Flight 2 (Nov 23, 2015)
After losing NS1, Blue Horizon built a second New Shephard, the NS2, launching it on Nov 23, 2015.
It went beyond the 100-kilometer mark and, both, booster and capsule returned safely back to Earth, marking Blue Horizon’s first ever successful retrieval of the reusable booster.
New Shepard Test Flight 3 (Jan 22, 2016)
NS2 was used again for the January 22, 2016 mission, effectively demonstrating the re-usability of the booster.
The rocket reached its apogee of 101.7 km, and again, booth booster and capsule returned back to base and were recovered for future use.
New Shepard Test Flight 4 (April 2, 2016)
In its third test flight, the NS2 went beyond the 62.5-mile mark and returned back to Earth without incident, with booster and capsule making their usual powered and parachuted landings, respectively.
New Shepard Test Flight 5 (June 19, 2016)
The fifth New Shepard launch – fourth for NS2 – took place on June 19, 2016, with the same success in terms of altitude reached and booster-capsule retrieval.
New Shepard Test Flight 6 (Oct 5, 2016)
NS2 was retired after its fifth and final test flight on October 5, 2016 – again a success as far as achieving test mission and returning safely back to the planet was concerned.
New Shepard Test Flight 7 (Dec 12, 2017)
In addition to the capsule, there were twelve commercial, research and education payloads on board, along with an “instrumented dummy” inside the capsule, appropriately dubbed Mannequin Skywalker.
After reaching an altitude of 61.75 miles – just shy of the Kármán line – the booster and capsule separated and returned to earth, executing their well-choreographed landing sequences to perfection, with Mannequin Skywalker apparently unharmed inside the ample space of Crew Capsule 2.0.
The seventh New Shepard mission, using a brand new booster and capsule – the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0 – was successfully accomplished on December 12, 2017, with both booster and capsule returning without incident.
New Shepard Test Flight 8 (April 29, 2018)
The NS3 booster and Crew Capsule 2.0 were deployed for a second time for the Apr 2018 mission, reaching an apogee of about 67 miles before separating for the return journey.
New Shepard Test Flight 9 (July 18, 2018)
This was the third mission involving the NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0, which saw the booster and capsule separate at a 73.8-mile apogee.
New Shepard Test Flight 10 (Jan 23, 2019)
Earlier scheduled for Dec 18, 2018, the fourth test flight mission of the new booster-capsule combo carried eight experimental payloads provided by NASA to an altitude of about 67 miles.
New Shepard Test Flight 11 (May 2, 2019)
Last week’s mission, discussed earlier, was the 11th overall and the fifth for NS3 and Crew Capsule 2.0