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Blue Origin launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship rises from its launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Something went wrong during today’s test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship, and the world was able to watch how it was handled online.

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture intentionally disabled one of the three parachutes on the New Shepard capsule, and also introduced some added challenges for the vertical landing of the rocket-powered booster stage after separation. It’s all part of Bezos’ plan to test the safety systems thoroughly before putting people aboard.

Liftoff took place at 7:35 a.m. PT (9:35 a.m. CT) from Blue Origin’s Texas launch complex. “Beautiful launch of our New Shepard rocket here from West Texas,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during Blue Origin’s live video coverage. The video stream was provided via BlueOrigin.com and YouTube. At its peak, more than 15,000 viewers were tuning in.

The test flight lasted about 10 minutes, sending the capsule to an altitude of 331,501 feet (62.8 miles, or 101 kilometers), Cornell said. The capsule separated from the booster as planned. Then the booster made a successful landing, and the two-parachute system brought the capsule down safely, just as hoped.

“That’s a great ride … Picture perfect. That’s exactly what we want,” said another launch commentator, Blue Origin engineer Geoffrey Huntington.

The capsule’s descent velocity was 23 mph before its retro-rocket system fired, but that speed was reduced to 2 mph for landing.

“This definitely made my Father’s Day, I gotta say. … Any day with a rocket landing is a fantastic day,” Huntington said.

Bezos, the father of four children, celebrated today’s success by tweeting a picture of his lucky boots, stamped with the words “Gradatim Ferociter.” That Latin phrase, which means “Step by Step, Ferociously,” serves as Blue Origin’s motto.

Today’s test flight marked the first time that the company live-streamed a launch. In the past, Blue Origin waited until after each mission to release imagery and a video. The shift to live coverage signals that Blue Origin is becoming more open about its progress.

This was the fourth outing for the reusable New Shepard vehicle, and the second outing to carry research payloads. Today, the payloads gathered data about how fluids and dust behave in zero-G.

Like the three previous flights – which occurred last November, in January and in April – this test mission relied on Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine to loft New Shepard’s capsule beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space.

Future flights will test other safety measures, including New Shepard’s in-flight escape system. “That’s going to be a very exciting test,” Huntington said.

If the test program proceeds as planned, Blue Origin will start flying test astronauts late next year. The timeline calls for putting paying passengers – researchers as well as tourists – aboard New Shepard starting in 2018.

Blue Origin hasn’t yet decided what the ticket price will be, nor has it started taking reservations. But it probably won’t be cheap: The price being charged by Virgin Galactic, another suborbital space venture, is $250,000.

Bezos founded his space company in 2000 to follow up on his childhood dream of traveling to the final frontier. Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, south of Seattle. In addition to its suborbital space program, it has an orbital program that’s just getting started in Florida. For that effort, the company is developing a more powerful BE-4 rocket engine that’s fueled with natural gas.

Bezos says he’s put more than $500 million into Blue Origin, with the objective of having millions of people living and working in space. He acknowledges that objective won’t be reached until long after he’s gone – but hey, this is the guy who’s funding a 10,000-year clock.

Blue Origin’s president, Rob Meyerson, is among the speakers at this week’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle. Check back for GeekWire’s coverage of NewSpace 2016.

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