New Shepard’s booster descends to Blue Origin’s landing pad. (Blue origin via YouTube)
The Blue Origin space project by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its reusable suborbital spaceship New Shepard – but for the first time living, breathing people practiced every step before takeoff and after landing.
“It’s as real as it gets without … sending you on a trip into space,” said launch commentator Ariane Cornell during the countdown to the launch of Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.
Blue Origin also raised the curtain for a quick look at the arrangements for future manned spaceflights, including the layout for its astronaut village and the routine that paying customers will go through on launch day.
During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile and climbed to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line,” which serves as the international boundary of space. The unofficial maximum altitude was 106 kilometers.
At the end of the journey, the New Shepard booster landed autonomously on its landing site, while the unscrewed crew capsule landed with the help of its parachutes and retro rockets.
“It’s such a smooth landing right there,” said Patrick Zeitouni, who heads Blue Origin’s advanced development program, shortly after touchdown.
A drone perspective shows the Blue Origin spaceship New Shepard rising from its launch pad in West Texas. (Blue origin via YouTube)
Blue Origin said the test mission, known as the NS-15, was a success – but today the focus was on the human factors that came into play before and after the 10-minute 27-second flight.
Four Blue Origin employees drove an SUV to the launch pad and climbed the seven flights of stairs to the top of the launch tower for today’s rehearsal. You were the New Shepard designer Gary Lai; CFO Susan Knapp; Audrey Powers, vice president of law and compliance; and Clay Mowry, vice president of sales, marketing, and customer experience.
Lai and Powers went further into the pre-launch plan and were strapped into New Shepard’s seats by Kevin Sproge, who assumed the role of Launchpad Guide, also known as “Crew Member 7”.
As soon as New Shepard goes into commercial service, perhaps this year, up to six crew members could fill the capsule’s seats. Seats were limited for today’s test flight, however, as Blue Origin flew a sensor-loaded test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker and payload cabinets containing more than 25,000 postcards sent in by Blue Origin as part of the Club for the Future nonprofit educational campaign.
After the communications links were buckled and checked, the countdown was activated and the backup astronauts left the scene to watch the launch from a safe distance. You should return to the capsule after landing to practice the exit procedure.
Blue Origin employees are expected to take their first flight with crew. Ultimately, however, the company will hire passengers who pay a six-figure ticket price. Cornell said space fliers will arrive at Blue Origin’s “astronaut village” three days prior to their flight and will undergo pre-flight training and simulations.
Starting point 1 of Blue Origin includes an “astronaut village” with accommodation. Click on the picture for a larger version. (Blue origin via YouTube)
The village includes living quarters named after Mercury astronauts (Gus, Wally, Gordo, and Deke), as well as female aviators who have undergone a NASA survey but have never flown in space (Jerrie, Myrtle, Rhea). There is also a lounge and fitness center called “The Karman Line” and a dining room called “The Rock House”.
Today’s test mission was the second flight for this particular spacecraft called the RSS First Step. New Shepard components are being built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Washington, and shipped to Texas for launch.
Blue Origin also has a facility and launcher for an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn in Florida and a facility in Alabama for the next-generation BE-4 engines. And as if that weren’t enough, the company leads a team working on a lunar landing system for NASA.