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New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship, dubbed RSS H.G. Wells, blasts off from its West Texas launch pad. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture notched another record today when it sent its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on its highest-ever round trip to space.

It was the eighth uncrewed test flight for the New Shepard program, and the second go-around for this particular spaceship, which is dubbed RSS H.G. Wells in honor of the English science-fiction writer and futurist.

RSS H.G. Wells flew for first time last December, and was refurbished in line with Blue Origin’s strategy for rocket reusability. On that flight, the craft rose to a height of 99.39 kilometers, just shy of the 100-kilometer Karman Line that defines the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

The target altitude for this flight was a record-setting 106.7 kilometers, or 350,000 feet. After today’s picture-perfect launch and landing, Bezos reported in a tweet that the craft reached 351,000 feet (107 kilometers).

“That’s the altitude we’ve been targeting for operations,” he said. “One step closer.”

A test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker was placed in one of the crew capsule’s six seats for the purposes of collecting flight data, just as it was for December’s flight.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility in West Texas was delayed for more than three hours, in part due to weather. “Mother Nature threw us a couple of thunderstorms,” webcast commentator Ariane Cornell explained.

Equipment checks added to the countdown holds. But once New Shepard’s booster lit up at 12:06 p.m. CT (10:06 a.m. PT), things escalated quickly.

During a 10-minute flight, the booster sent the capsule straight upward into partly cloudy skies at supersonic speeds, separated, coasted to its apogee and then plummeted back toward the ground.

Under autonomous control, the booster maneuvered its air brakes and relit its hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine to slow its speed. A double sonic boom heralded its approach, and the booster set down smoothly on its landing legs in the designated landing area.

Blue Origin booster touchdown
Blue Origin’s rocket booster touches down at the end of an uncrewed test flight. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Meanwhile, the capsule floated down at the end of three parachutes and set down in the desert with a retro-cushioned floomph.

Scientific payloads were flown in the capsule for NASA’s Johnson Space Center and German research teams. Yet another payload, provided by New Mexico-based Solstar, was aimed at testing a Wi-Fi system that could be used by suborbital spacefliers.

For now, however, Mannequin Skywalker was the only one filling a seat. The current round of uncrewed flight tests is aimed at clearing the way for Blue Origin’s test astronauts to start taking their turns around the end of this year or early next year.

Paying passengers — including tourists as well as researchers — will eventually climb aboard the autonomously piloted spaceship. But Blue Origin hasn’t yet set a ticket price or taken customer reservations for those crewed flights.

Blue Origin is building on its experience with the New Shepard suborbital program as it proceeds with its New Glenn orbital program, which could start flying as early as 2020. The New Glenn’s mainstay BE-4 rocket engine is currently being produced at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and undergoing tests at the West Texas facility.

Blue Origin capsule touchdown
The New Shepard crew capsule fires retro rockets as it touches down. The only “crew” in the capsule for this test flight was an instrument-laden dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Once the BE-4 passes muster, Blue Origin plans to ramp up engine production at a new facility in Alabama, and integrate the engines with New Glenn rockets at its mammoth Florida factory.

Blue Origin is taking a slower approach to spaceflight development than that pursued by SpaceX. But the approach is no less steady: Bezos is devoting billions of dollars’ worth of his personal riches to Blue Origin, in line with his vision of having millions of people living and working in space.

Last week in Berlin, he said his space venture is “the most important work that I’m doing,” even though he acknowledged it may be up to his great-grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to see his vision fully realized.

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