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Blue Origin spacecraft separation
The payload capsule on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship lights up its in-flight escape rocket motor and separates from the booster below. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is a happy man today, now that the wildest test flight ever conducted by his Blue Origin space venture has ended in the safe landing of an empty crew capsule as well as a fuel-filled rocket booster.

The most important outcome was the survival of the New Shepard spacecraft’s capsule, demonstrating that Blue Origin’s in-flight escape system works. The booster was a bonus.

Bezos said before the launch that he fully expected New Shepard’s booster to go boom. But in a pleasant surprise, the booster made a safe return to the ground, leading to cheers from the audience watching the live stream of the flight at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle. And that’s nothing compared to the celebration that took place at Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site.

“That is one hell of a booster,” Bezos said in a post-landing tweet that was accompanied by a must-see Vine video.

Later on, Bezos kicked back for the celebration with a drink and his trademark cowboy boots, emblazoned with Blue Origin’s motto: “Gradatim Ferociter.” (That’s Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”)

This New Shepard craft made four successful test flights over the past year, each time rising above the 100-kilometer-high (62-mile-high) line that marks the start of outer space. In as little as two years, Blue Origin plans to send people on suborbital space trips, for tourism and for research.

The countdown wasn’t without its hiccups: The first time around, Blue Origin called a hold within the two-minute mark, conducted an assessment of flight readiness and recycled the count to 15 minutes. Another timeout came during the final minutes of the second countdown, but then the clock ticked down all the way to ignition.

The launch went off as usual, and was greeted with whoops and hollers in West Texas. Then, about 45 seconds after liftoff, the test got much tougher. At an altitude of about 16,000 feet, when New Shepard was under maximum aerodynamic stress, the uncrewed passenger capsule automatically triggered a solid-rocket motor and blasted away from the booster below.

The rocket firing is a crucial part of Blue Origin’s plan to deal with any anomalies that the booster might encounter during ascent. The idea is that the blast would throw the capsule and its occupants clear of the booster.

 

As expected, the capsule flew away, deployed its parachutes and drifted safely to the West Texas desert. But something unexpected happened to the booster. Or, more precisely, something that was supposed to happen didn’t.

Before the launch, Bezos said that the rocket booster wasn’t likely to survive today’s test. Most computer simulations suggested that it would be knocked off-kilter by the escape motor’s fiery 70,000-pound thrust, resulting in a helter-skelter plunge and a big explosion on the ground. The biggest surprise from today’s test was that the booster actually stayed on course.

After rising to a maximum altitude of 307,458 feet (93.7 kilometers), the booster fell back through the atmosphere at supersonic speeds. Seven minutes after liftoff, the booster relit its own hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine and made a perfect touchdown on its landing pad.

“There you go, New Shepard – look at her. What a test!” Blue Origin launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the live-streamed webcast. “I’m going to be raising a glass to both the booster and the crew capsule this evening. What an extraordinary test and a tremendous final flight for both craft!”

The booster of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket makes a successful landing.
The booster of Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket makes a successful landing.

Before the flight, Bezos promised to send the capsule and the booster to a museum, or museums. “We’ll certainly find a place for these vehicles to be seen by everybody,” Cornell said.

A brand-new New Shepard – one of several that have been assembled at the company’s headquarters in Kent, south of Seattle – will make its debut during the next test.

Doug King, president and CEO of Seattle’s Museum of Flight, said at today’s GeekWire Summit launch viewing that he’s hoping to acquire artifacts from today’s memorable test flight – although the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is almost certainly hoping for a piece of history as well.

“No country has ever done this,” King said. “If you can do this, you can make space affordable, and we can all go.”

New Shepard is named after the late NASA astronaut Alan Shepard, who took on Project Mercury’s first suborbital spaceflight in 1961. Blue Origin is also working on the design for an orbital rocket called New Glenn (named after John Glenn) and talking about a rocket for flights beyond Earth orbit that’s called New Armstrong (a tribute to Neil Armstrong).

Update for 9:40 a.m. PT Oct. 6: I’ve updated this report with the official figures for the New Shepard booster’s maximum altitude.

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