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Blue Origin escape system
An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s crew capsule firing its escape rocket motor. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has flown the same rocket booster to outer space and back four times over the past year – but the fifth trip, planned for October, will be that booster’s last.

“Our next flight is going to be dramatic, no matter how it ends,” Bezos said in an email.

Bezos said the uncrewed flight will serve as a test of the New Shepard suborbital spaceship’s escape system.

About 45 seconds after New Shepard launches from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site, the capsule that’s designed for cargo and crew will separate from the booster. This will happen at an altitude of 16,000 feet, at a point in the ascent known as “max-Q,” or maximum dynamic pressure, when the spacecraft’s structure comes under maximum stress.

If the test proceeds according to plan, the capsule’s “pusher” rocket motor will fire for two seconds, propelling the capsule away from the booster. Parachutes will deploy to slow down the capsule’s descent, and the capsule will be recovered safe and sound.

The booster will have a rougher time, which Bezos is bummed about.

“We’d really like to retire it after this test and put it in a museum,” he said. “Sadly, that’s not likely. This test will probably destroy the booster.”

Bezos explained that the escape rocket motor’s searing-hot exhaust will blast the booster with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force. That’s way more than the booster was designed to withstand.

“Nevertheless, the booster is very robust,” Bezos said, “and our Monte Carlo simulations show that there’s some chance we can fly through these disturbances and recover the booster.”

Either way, it’ll be a live webcast to remember.

“If the booster does manage to survive this flight – its fifth – we will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum,” said Bezos, perking up ears at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. “In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered, and its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

Blue Origin isn’t just doing this to blow things up real good. The New Shepard’s pusher escape system is an essential part of the company’s safety plan. If something goes wrong during a future rocket ascent, the escape system needs to work in order to save New Shepard’s passengers from disaster.

The escape system was given a launch pad test back in 2012, but the max-Q test will be much more challenging.

SpaceX is working on a similar escape system for its crew-capable Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX’s system aced a launch pad test last year – and last week’s catastrophic loss of a Falcon 9 rocket and its satellite payload in a launch pad explosion dramatically demonstrated why such a system is needed.

Blue Origin has yet to schedule the next flight test, although Bezos said it should take place in the first part of October. The company aims to start flying test astronauts in the autonomously controlled craft next year, and start taking paying passengers aboard in 2018.

The price of a ticket hasn’t yet been set, and no reservations are being taken at this time. However, you can sign up for future updates from Bezos via Blue Origin’s website.

“In my next email update, I hope to give you a sneak peek of the orbital vehicle we’ve been working on for the last few years,” Bezos said.

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