Blue Origin Flies — and Lands — New Shepard Suborbital Spacecraft


Updated 12:45 p.m. Eastern time.

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin announced Nov. 24 that it launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on a second test flight, flying to the edge of space and successfully landing both sections of the vehicle.

New Shepard launched from the company’s West Texas test site at 12:21 p.m. Eastern time Nov. 23, reaching a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers and top speed of Mach 3.72. The vehicle’s unoccupied crew capsule separated and parachuted to a landing, while its propulsion module made a powered vertical landing.

“As far as we can tell from our quick-look inspections and a quick look at the data, this mission was completely nominal, and this vehicle is ready to fly again,” Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said in a brief conference call with reporters Nov. 24.

The test was similar to one flown in April, where the vehicle reached a peak altitude of more than 93 kilometers. On that earlier test, however, a hydraulic problem with the propulsion module prevented it from making a controlled landing.

“This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design,” Bezos said in a statement accompanying the announcement of the flight. That includes fins and drag brakes that steer and slow down the propulsion module before its main engine reignites for the final landing sequence.

Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle coming in for a landing Nov. 23 after reaching a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers and top speed of Mach 3.72. Credit: Blue Origin video
Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle coming in for a landing Nov. 23 after reaching a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers and top speed of Mach 3.72. Credit: Blue Origin video

Both modules of New Shepard are designed to be reused. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again,” Bezos said in the statement. The company did not initially state when they next plan to fly the vehicle.

The next test flight, Bezos told reporters, would be “some number of weeks” away, depending on further inspections of the vehicle. “As we examine all the data very closely, and inspect the hardware, we may some subsystems that we want to improve,” he said. “Our approach is to be very step-by-step, very patient, very methodical.”

Bezos said that Blue Origin is planning a series of “many” test flights before they will fly people on board. “We’ll do some stressful test flights,” he said. That includes one flight to the test the crew capsule escape system near maximum dynamic pressure. “That will almost certainly destroy the booster, but we want to test that condition to convince ourselves and verify the design of the escape system.”

The company did not announce the test flight in advance, and did not issue a statement about it until 18 hours after it took place. However, in recent weeks company officials have stated that they planned to conduct a test flight of New Shepard before the end of the year.

The successful flight keeps Blue Origin on track to begin commercial flights of uncrewed research payloads by the middle of 2016, a goal recently stated by company officials. Bezos told reporters he hoped to to start flying people on New Shepard in a couple of years, depending on the progress made during test flights.

“As much as I would like to put humans on that vehicle and fly it as soon as possible,” he said, “the reality is that we’ll enter commercial operations with that vehicle when we’re ready, and not before.”

Bezos added that the New Shepard suborbital test flights will also support the company’s development of an orbital launch vehicle it first announced in September. The first stage of that orbital vehicle will land vertically on a platform in the ocean, similar to current efforts by SpaceX to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 vehicle.

“What we have demonstrated with this flight of New Shepard is a complete reuse of a booster stage,” he said. “We’re going to take that same exact architecture that was demonstrated and use it on our the booster stage of our orbital vehicle.”