Blue Origin Plans To Begin Commercial Suborbital Research Flights in 2016

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WASHINGTON — Blue Origin expects to start launching commercial payloads on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle by the middle of next year, hoping to reinvigorate interest in flying experiments on such vehicles, a company official said Nov. 10.

Erika Wagner, Blue Origin business development manager. Credit: LinkedIn
Erika Wagner, Blue Origin business development manager. Credit: LinkedIn

Erika Wagner, business development manager for Blue Origin, said the company was making plans for another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle by the end of this year which, if successful, would keep the company on track for commercial flights of payloads, but not people, in 2016.

“We’re aiming for the second quarter of next year,” she said at a microgravity workshop organized by Houston-based NanoRacks, a company partnering with Blue Origin to provide standardized payload accommodations for experiments flying on New Shepard.

That schedule, she said, depends on the progress Blue Origin makes with test flights of the vehicle. The company launched New Shepard on an April 29 flight from its West Texas test site. Although the vehicle’s propulsion module failed to make a powered landing because of a problem with its hydraulics system, the rest of the vehicle performed well. “If you had been on board that flight, you would have had a great day,” she said.

The next test flight, she said, is planned to take place by the end of the year, a schedule that Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson also gave in an Oct. 7 speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Neither Meyerson nor Wagner said how many additional test flights the company expects to fly before beginning commercial payload flights.

Wagner added that the schedule for beginning commercial flights also depends on when the company receives its commercial launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. The April flight of New Shepard took place under an experimental permit, which allows for tests of suborbital vehicles, but prohibits carrying payloads for hire.

The permit, though, does allow the company to fly payloads on the vehicle without charging. Wagner said that the company has several “pathfinder” payloads contributed by researchers that will fly on a New Shepard test flight in the next few months.

One of the people providing payloads for those test flights, Steven Collicott, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, said he’s pleased with what he has seen so far from Blue Origin. “There’s a wealth of control, power and data options” for experiments, he said. “It’s really very impressive.”

The payload accommodations for experiments on New Shepard are similar to the middeck lockers used for International Space Station experiments, but Wagner said Blue Origin and NanoRacks, which handles payload sales and integration for New Shepard flights, can accommodate customized experiments as well. The companies are offering a special option for student experiments, similar in size to a two-unit cubesat, for $5,300.

Wagner also said that, as Blue Origin ramps up research flights, it will offer additional features for those payloads. Those include access to the capsule’s large windows, externally mounted experiments, and hands-on access to experiments by crewmembers during flight. While Blue Origin is planning to carry out dedicated research flights on a quarterly basis, she said the vehicle can be prepared for another flight within 24 hours for those experiments that require rapid turnaround.

Blue Origin’s activities come as interest in commercial suborbital research flights, which was strong several years ago, has faded as companies developing those vehicles suffered delays. Collicott, a member of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s Suborbital Applications Researchers Group, advocated for suborbital research in a talk at the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research here Nov. 12.

“People say to me, ‘Well, the rocket’s aren’t flying. They’re not ready for me today,’” he said to an audience primarily of researchers. “My answer is, ‘That’s fine. Is your experiment ready today?’” In most cases, he said, they’re not, giving scientists time to seek funding and build experiment hardware as suborbital vehicles continue their development.

“Real flights are happening,” he added, noting that besides the development work by Blue Origin and other companies, he flew an experiment on a commercial sounding rocket launched by UP Aerospace from Spaceport America in New Mexico Nov. 6. “This is not a future endeavor.”