Blue Origin flies next-generation New Shepard vehicle

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NEW ORLEANS — Blue Origin said it carried out a successful test flight of a new version of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle Dec. 12.

In a statement issued about 11 hours after the flight, the company said that the “Mission 7” suborbital test flight of New Shepard, using a new propulsion module and crew capsule, went as planned.

“Today’s flight of New Shepard was a tremendous success,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in a statement. “It marks the inaugural flight of our next-generation Crew Capsule as we continue step-by-step progress in our test flight program.”

The vehicle lifted off from the company’s test site in West Texas at 11:59 a.m. Eastern, reaching a peak altitude of nearly 100 kilometers and a top speed during ascent of Mach 2.94. The propulsion module made a powered vertical landing while the crew capsule descended under parachutes, touching down 10 minutes and 6 seconds after liftoff.

The Mission 7 flight was the first to use a new propulsion module, after Blue Origin retired the earlier module that flew five successful test flights from November 2015 through October 2016. It was also the first flight of an upgraded crew capsule, dubbed “Crew Capsule 2.0,” that includes windows the company says are the largest ever flown on a spacecraft.

The capsule, Blue Origin said in the statement, carried 12 commercial, research and education payloads. Images released by the company show it also carried an instrumented test dummy, identified as “Mannequin Skywalker” in a caption. “He had a good ride,” tweeted company founder Jeff Bezos.

In a return to the secrecy that veiled earlier phases of New Shepard’s development, Blue Origin did not provide any information about the flight until well after it ended. Last year, the company started providing advance notice of test flights and, later, live webcasts.

New Shepard capsule
The New Shepard crew capsule after landing. The capsule carried a dozen payloads and an instrumented test dummy, visible in one of the capsule’s large windows. Credit: Blue Origin

The only advance word about this flight came in the form of a Federal Aviation Administration airspace restriction, known as a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM), published Dec. 9, which closed airspace around the test site for several hours a day from Dec. 11 through 14. Blue Origin said it was planning “spaceflight operations” there and would cancel the NOTAM after the operations were complete.

During the day Dec. 12 there were rumors of a flight, but no official word from the company. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, later in the day, listed the flight on its list of launches it licensed, and the FAA also removed the NOTAM from its web site.

The flight was the first New Shepard launch to be carried out under a full-fledged launch license from the FAA, issued to Blue Origin in August. Previous launches took place under an experimental permit, which allows for suborbital flight testing but does not allow the vehicles to be used to carry payloads for hire.