Blue Origin sends dozens of payloads to space — and looks ahead to sending people

An overhead view shows Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship lifting off in West Texas. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, today sent dozens of science experiments and other payloads to space and back on its suborbital New Shepard rocket ship.

Today’s liftoff marked the 11th uncrewed test mission in the New Shepard program, and the fifth go-round for this particular reusable booster and its capsule.

The main mission was to check out the launch system in preparation for flying people later this year, but Blue Origin said it flew 38 commercial payloads in the crew capsule — including a 3-D printer and a scientific centrifuge designed for use in zero-gravity.

Liftoff took place at Blue Origin’s testing and launch facility in West Texas at 8:32 a.m. CT (6:32 a.m. PT) after only minor delays. “Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell exclaimed as the New Shepard booster’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine blasted the craft into clear skies.

Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated from the booster and coasted upward to a peak altitude of 346,406 feet. That’s 65.6 miles, or 105.6 kilometers — well above the 100-kilometer Karman Line that’s internationally accepted as the edge of space, but well below the 119-kilometer mark that the same New Shepard craft reached last July. The maximum ascent velocity was a supersonic 2,217 mph, or 3,567 kilometers per hour.

The crew capsule and its contents experienced a few minutes of weightlessness at the maximum altitude, leading Cornell to muse over what passengers might feel. “If only we were in there, guys,” she said. “It’s coming.”

Within minutes, the booster relit its engine to make a controlled touchdown on its landing pad, while the capsule floated down to a separate touchdown on the end of a parachute. Mission elapsed time was 10 minutes and 11 seconds, Blue Origin said.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster touches down on its West Texas landing pad at the end of a successful flight. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Today’s flight came three and a half months after Blue Origin’s previous New Shepard flight. If that tempo continues, and if Blue Origin truly intends to begin crewed flights by the end of the year, there can’t be many more uncrewed practice runs left on the test schedule.

The first people to climb on board are likely to be Blue Origin employees — perhaps former NASA astronauts such as Jeff Ashby or Nicholas Patrick. Paying passengers would follow, but Blue Origin has yet to say how much a ticket will cost.

New Shepard hardware is produced at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and shipped down to Texas for flight. Cornell said people wouldn’t ride in the New Shepard capsule that was tested today, but in an upgraded capsule that’s currently sitting in Blue Origin’s “barn” in Texas.

“Because it’s such a special capsule to us, we actually decided to name the newest capsule that’s just in the barn the ‘RSS First Step,’ ” Cornell said. ” ‘RSS’? Reusable Spaceship, of course. And ‘First Step’ because it is our first capsule that is going to be taking people. It’s going to enable our vision of millions of people living and working in space.”

In addition to the New Shepard suborbital space program, Blue Origin is working on an orbital-class rocket called New Glenn, a new breed of rocket engine called the BE-4, and a lunar lander called Blue Moon. New Glenn and the BE-4 are due to make their space debut in 2021, and Blue Moon could make its first delivery to the moon in the early 2020s.

Cornell said Blue Origin’s workforce has reached the 2,000-employee mark and is on track to hit 2,600 by the end of the year, with most of those workers in Kent. Way back in 2016, Bezos said the company was “busting out of the seams” with 600 employees. Good thing an expanded headquarters is under construction.

Update for 3:50 p.m. PT May 2: We’ve tweaked the stats from today’s mission to reflect Blue Origin’s official figures.