Blue Origin is planning the next test flight of its reusable New Shepard rocket, but CEO Jeff Bezos just revealed a twist: the empty crew capsule, which sits on top of the rocket, will crash-land on purpose.
"On this upcoming mission we also plan to stress the crew capsule by landing with an intentionally failed parachute, demonstrating our ability to safely handle that failure scenario," Bezos writes in an email update that was sent out this afternoon. "It promises to be an exciting demonstration."
Blue Origin wants to find out what happens if the parachutes fail
New Shepard is the company's flagship rocket, one that it hopes to use to send tourists to space starting in 2018. Those trips, if and when they happen, will be short — Blue Origin plans to offer just four minutes of weightlessness before the capsules return to Earth. Passengers will be passing what's known as the Karman line — an imaginary boundary 62 miles above the Earth that signals the beginning of what the industry officially refers to as "space" — but they won't be going into orbit.
The rocket that Bezos is talking about is the same reusable New Shepard rocket that Blue Origin has flown — and landed — three separate times. (While there are many differences between what SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing, Bezos is trying to accomplish a similar goal of lowering the price tag of getting to space by making its rockets reusable.) The crew capsule separated and returned safely to Earth using parachutes during each of those previous missions.
Crashing the crew capsule won't be the only difference during this test flight. Bezos writes that the company will "execute additional maneuvers on both the crew capsule and the booster" in order to learn more about how they behave under different conditions. "One of the fundamental tenets of Blue Origin is that the safest vehicle is one that is robust and well understood," he writes. "Each successive mission affords us the opportunity to learn and improve our vehicles and their modeling."
New Shepard has flown and landed three times since November of 2015. News of the first landing wasn't shared until a day after the company had completed the mission, but the private spaceflight company has become less secretive with each flight. That said, the company has not yet revealed a date for the upcoming flight.