Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin carried out another suborbital launch of its New Shepard rocket on Wednesday, testing its reusable booster and capsule system, which is designed to carry humans to the edge of space and back. Like the last 14 launches, no humans were aboard this time. But with an extensive pre-launch exercise with “stand-in astronauts” on Wednesday, the company indicated its first crewed flight may be around the corner.
The five-story-tall New Shepard rocket lifted off from Blue Origin’s test launch facilities in Van Horn, Texas, at 12:49PM ET on Wednesday. It soared roughly 65 miles above the ground before jettisoning its crew capsule, which sat atop the rocket booster carrying the company’s test dummy named “Mannequin Skywalker.”
“A beautiful launch and landing for both the crew capsule and the booster,” said Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut strategy and host for the mission’s live stream.
Parting with the capsule, the New Shepard booster fell back toward land and reignited its single BE-3 engine to touch down on a slab of concrete about two miles from its launchpad. Meanwhile, the crew capsule basked in roughly three minutes of weightlessness at the edge of space before making its own return roughly 10 minutes after liftoff. The capsule’s descent was soft, slowed by a set of three parachutes before hitting ground in Van Horn.
This NS-15 mission, Blue Origin said, was “a verification step for the vehicle and operations prior to flying astronauts.” A team of four company executives — or “stand-in astronauts” — rehearsed a number of pre-launch procedures on the launchpad before liftoff. That included walking up the New Shepard launch tower, boarding the capsule, closing its hatch, and testing communications with CAPCOM, or the Capsule Communicator who’d be in contact with the crew before and during flight.
The employees left the capsule and departed the launchpad about 15 minutes before liftoff. The rehearsal team included Blue Origin’s vice president of sales Clay Mowry, VP of legal and compliance Audrey Powers, the “architect of New Shepard” Gary Lai, and Blue Origin CFO Susan Knapp.
With these New Shepard launches, Blue Origin has been gradually testing new hardware tailored for flying humans. The last mission, NS-14 in January, included little screens and push-to-talk buttons for each of the capsule’s six passenger seats. That capsule also had upgraded “acoustics and temperature regulation” as well as microphones and speakers to “test a number of astronaut communication and safety alert systems.”
Blue Origin hasn’t said when exactly it’ll fly humans for the first time, and during the broadcast today, the company’s spokespeople only said that the first crewed flight would happen “soon.” The company, founded in 2000, hoped to launch humans for the first time before the end of 2020, but its launches last year were delayed. Blue Origin doesn’t appear to be in any rush, though. The company’s motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “step by step, ferociously.”