Blue Origin is all set to launch its New Shepard rocket again today from the company’s test range in West Texas. It’ll be the fifth time this particular vehicle takes flight, but the test will be anything but routine. The company will be trying out the vehicle’s escape system on this flight — a feature that’s supposed to save any future passengers on board the New Shepard if the vehicle fails during its climb to space. Testing out this system is a valuable step toward making the New Shepard ready for human spaceflight. It will also probably destroy the rocket today.
The test will be anything but routine
That’s because of how the New Shepard is structured. The vehicle consists of a crew capsule that is carried into space on top of a rocket booster. If for some reason that booster explodes — either on the ground or during ascent — a rocket motor on the bottom of the capsule will ignite for about two seconds. That motor is supposed to carry the capsule up and away from the failing booster, to get people out of harm’s way. Then, the vehicle’s parachutes will deploy, lowering the capsule gently down to the ground.
It’s a system that Blue Origin has tested out on the launch pad before, but the company has yet to see how well this feature works during flight. To see the escape system in action, Blue Origin will ignite the capsule’s motor about 45 seconds after the New Shepard launches, when the vehicle is at an altitude of about 16,000 feet. The booster should be working just fine when that happens, but the motor’s ignition will slam the rocket with a lot of forceful heat exhaust. That means we probably won’t get to see this booster land upright again, since it will mostly like smash into the floor of the Texas desert.
Still, there is a possibility that the booster will survive the escape system test. If so, CEO Jeff Bezos promised to throw a party for this New Shepard and put it on display in a museum. If not, we’re at least guaranteed a nice fireworks show today, since the test flight will be live streamed. Tune back in at 10:45AM ET to watch the (possibly) explosive flight live.