Last week, the private space firm Blue Origin conducted a successful test launch of their capsule and suborbital booster rocket called New Shepard. The successful test not only served as another notch in Blue Origin’s belt, but it also provided the opportunity to test and demonstrate their crew capsule escape system.
Unlike Elon Musk’s space fairing company SpaceX, Blue Origin (which is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) has made space tourism their primary goal, using rockets to reach the necessary altitude to experience weightlessness, but not quite venturing out into space deep enough to enter into low earth orbit. Instead, the rocket is designed to carry its crew capsule up to an altitude of about 62 miles traveling at speeds in excess of Mach 3, where the crew capsule will then separate from the booster. The booster then returns to earth under its own power in a fashion similar to that employed by SpaceX’s reusable rocket stages. The crew capsule, however, floats back to the earth beneath parachutes. Both the booster and the crew capsule are entirely reusable, representing significant cost savings over traditional rockets.
But what if something were to go wrong along the way? Unlike previous manned space missions that were crewed by astronauts with an acute awareness and acceptance of the risks involved in their profession, Blue Origin hopes to ferry everyday citizens to the cusp of space and return them home safely. That means needing to plan for the possibility of technical failures along the rocket’s flight path — and as this clip of SpaceX’s rocket failures can demonstrate, technical failures on a rocket are often as spectacular as they are deadly.
In order to help ensure a crew could survive such a catastrophic failure, Blue Origin designed their New Shepard platform to be able to launch the crew capsule away from the rocket at any point along its flight path, deploying the landing chutes and serving as a means of escape if the rocket engine itself were to fail. Last week’s test demonstrated the feasibility of their methodology, with the crew capsule escaping the launch platform safely and then both parts of the rocket returning safely to earth without any damage.
The test of the crew capsule’s solid-propellant escape motor provided it with sufficient distance to clear a potential explosion from the booster itself just about eleven minutes into the rocket’s flight. The rocket itself was unaffected by the escape motor, and both components of the New Shepard survived to be used on subsequent launches.
Blue Origin has announced plans to conduct their next test of this system using a crew capsule that is equipped with “finished customer interiors” designed to carry up to six passengers. They have yet to announce plans to begin putting real people into these tests launches (of which there have been a total of nine), but some Blue Origin officials have claimed to have plans to put a human crew on a suborbital flight before the end of this year.
Watch the Blue Origin New Shepard test its crew capsule escape system below:
Featured image screen capped from YouTube