Blue Origin preparing to resume test flights from West Texas


WASHINGTON — An airspace closure notice published by the Federal Aviation Administration Dec. 9 suggests Blue Origin is preparing to resume test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle after a hiatus of more than a year.

The Notice to Airman, or NOTAM, published by the FAA on its website Dec. 9 closes airspace above Blue Origin’s test site between Dec. 11 and 14, from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern each day. The closure is to “provide a safe environment for rocket launch and recovery.”

The NOTAM does not give additional details about the planned activities, but does identify Blue Origin as the point of contact regarding the airspace closure.

“Blue Origin has filed a NOTAM for spaceflight operations this week. It will be taken down when our activity is complete,” a company spokesperson said in a statement to SpaceNews. The company declined to provide additional details about those spaceflight operations.

Blue Origin has filed similar NOTAMs in the past in advance of New Shepard test flights. Such notices were originally the only advance notice of those flights, which the company disclosed only after they took place. The company later became more open about New Shepard test flights, proving advance notice of them and even offering live webcasts.

Blue Origin completed a series of suborbital test flights of New Shepard in October 2016. On that last flight, it successfully performed a test of the vehicle’s in-flight abort system, with the crew capsule rocketing away from the propulsion module and making a parachute landing. Despite expectations that the propulsion module would be damaged or destroyed by the abort motor’s plume, it was able to make a powered vertical landing, similar to four other test flights dating back to November 2015.

Blue Origin subsequently retired that test vehicle, putting the propulsion module on display at events such as the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs and the Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture air show in Wisconsin. Along with it, the company displayed a model of the crew capsule, its interior outfitted with six seats to carry space tourists on the suborbital spaceflights the company plans to offer. New Shepard will also be able to fly research payloads, with some experiments flying on the earlier series of test flights.

The company said it was building a new set of propulsion modules and crew capsules. In recent months, company officials said that test flights using the new vehicles would resume before the end of this year.

“We’re looking forward to flying the next tail number of New Shepard by the end of the year,” Ariane Cornell of Blue Origin said in a Sept. 26 panel discussion at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.

Those future test flights, she said then, would also use a version of the crew capsule that includes the large windows the company has promoted as the largest ever to be flown on a spacecraft. The capsule on the earlier test flights had only the locations of the windows painted on its exterior. “It’s a really important next step,” she said.

Unlike Virgin Galactic, another company that is planning to offer suborbital spaceflights for tourism, Blue Origin has not started selling tickets for New Shepard flights. Company founder Jeff Bezos said at Space Symposium in April that selling tickets, or even setting a price for those tickets, was not a priority at the time.

“We’ll probably start taking down payments and selling tickets when we’re closer to commercial operations,” Bezos said then. “We have a whole test program ahead of us.”