Update October 13th, 9:53AM ET: New Shepard successfully took off at 9:36AM ET, climbing to a height of about 66 miles up. Both the rocket and crew capsule returned safely to Earth following the flight.
Original story: This morning, Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin is set to conduct another test launch of its New Shepard rocket, a reusable vehicle designed to take paying tourists to the edge of space and back. Just like New Shepard test flights of the past, no people will be on board this trip, but the rocket will be carrying a dozen research payloads to space for NASA.
Today’s test will mark the 13th launch of the New Shepard program and the seventh overall flight for this particular rocket. But it’s been a long time since the New Shepard fleet has seen any action, with the last test flight (featuring the same rocket launching today) taking place back in December 2019. In April, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, the company had hoped to conduct another New Shepard test launch, despite concerns voiced by employees at the time. That launch was ultimately delayed, and Blue Origin waited until late September to try again, though it had to push the launch back until this week due to a power supply issue.
Now, after the long downtime, New Shepard appears ready to fly again, with multiple experiments in tow to be tested out in space. Typically, these experiments ride inside the New Shepard crew capsule, perched on top of the rocket, but one NASA experiment will actually remain mounted to the outside of the rocket for the entire flight. Called “Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution,” or SPLICE for short, this payload is equipped with sensors, instruments, and software that NASA has developed to help future crewed and robotic spacecraft land on the Moon. Throughout the New Shepard flight, NASA will determine how well the technology works as the rocket flies to space and then attempts to land gently back down on Earth.
New Shepard’s flight profile makes it a great testbed for trying out lunar landing technologies, says NASA. The rocket takes off vertically from the ground, flying up to around 62 miles high, where any passengers inside would experience microgravity. (Similarly, lunar landers also experience microgravity and the vacuum of space before touching down on the Moon.) After reaching space, the crew capsule detaches from the rest of the rocket, and both vehicles fall back down to Earth. A series of parachutes deploy to land the crew capsule safely on the ground while the rocket reignites its engine to land upright. Lunar landers also employ similar landing techniques on the Moon, using onboard engines to slow down and touch down gently on the lunar surface. During that descent and landing, NASA’s SPLICE experiment will be collecting a whole lot of data.
If all goes well, SPLICE’s software and instruments could help future crewed landers land more precisely on parts of the Moon. In fact, it’s a tool that could be helpful for Blue Origin’s own lunar lander, Blue Moon, which the company is developing for NASA’s Artemis program. “Precision landing is critical for a sustainable lunar future that builds a lunar base with successive missions,” Brent Sherwood, vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said in a statement. “On New Shepard together with NASA, we are demonstrating in flight the capabilities America can use to conduct lunar exploration.”
Along with SPLICE, New Shepard will also be carrying payloads from John Hopkins University, Southwest Research Institute, the University of Florida, and more. The rocket will also hold tens of thousands of postcards written by students, arranged by Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit, which will be returned to their senders later.
As crucial as these tests are, the ultimate goal of the New Shepard program is to fly people to space and back. Blue Origin envisions flying paying tourists on the rocket, but NASA is also pursuing ways to fly research scientists and NASA astronauts on New Shepard. Blue Origin still has a ways to go before that happens, though. At the start of this year, Blue Origin hoped to conduct crewed test flights in 2020. But the company first has to fly the fourth iteration of its New Shepard rocket, which still hasn’t flown yet. That vehicle is the one that will supposedly carry the first passengers, and the company has not given a timeline for when it will be ready.
In the meantime, Blue Origin is focused on today’s flight, and the company says it’s taking necessary safety precautions ahead of the launch. “Safety is our highest priority,” a Blue Origin spokesperson said in a statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations.” When it comes to keeping people safe during the pandemic, “all mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers, and surrounding communities,” the spokesperson said.
Takeoff is scheduled for 9:35AM ET out of Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas. The flight should last just about 11 minutes from launch to landing. Blue Origin plans to start live-streaming the launch roughly 30 minutes before takeoff and will provide updates on its Twitter account.