Blue Origin to ramp up New Shepard tests


WASHINGTON — After completing two successful flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle in two months, Blue Origin plans to increase the frequency of future test flights, with dozens more planned before the company is ready to start flying people.

In a Jan. 25 interview, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said that the company was continuing to review data from the most recent New Shepard flight on Jan. 22, but that initial indications were that the vehicle performed as expected.

“We haven’t seen or heard of anything that’s of concern. The vehicle performed perfectly,” he said. “Everything we’ve seen looks really good.”

On the flight from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, New Shepard flew to a peak altitude of 101.7 kilometers. The vehicle’s conical crew capsule parachuted back to Earth, while its propulsion module, equipped with a BE-3 engine developed by Blue Origin, made a powered vertical landing near the center of its landing pad.

The flight involved the same vehicle that flew a nearly identical flight from the same site Nov. 23, making it the first reused vehicle to make a powered vertical landing. Meyerson said the company plans to shorten the time between future test flights.

“We expect to shorten that turnaround time over time this year, and fly this vehicle again and again,” he said. Those upcoming tests will use the same New Shepard vehicle that flew the previous two flights, with hardware and software modifications as needed between flights.

Meyerson said the company still plans to perform “dozens” of test flights of New Shepard over the next couple of years before the company is ready to carry people on the vehicle. “It really depends on how the flight test program goes,” he said. “It could be a little faster than that, or it could be a little longer than that, depending on what we learn.”

Blue Origin, though, does expect to start carrying uncrewed research payloads on New Shepard later this year. The company has been working with researchers at Purdue University, the University of Central Florida and Louisiana State University to provide initial “pathfinder” experiments that will fly on the vehicle. “We hope to fly those payloads this year,” he said.

Using the same vehicle for those upcoming test flights is also important to demonstrate the vehicle’s reusability, a key goal of the company. “It really validates our design and analysis to be able to look at the hardware we’ve recovered,” he said.

He noted that while engineers inspected the vehicle’s BE-3 engine after the November flight, they did not remove it and do more thorough analysis of it prior to the Jan. 22 flight. “Having the ability to turn the vehicle around quickly is going to really depend on going to more of an inspection mode on some of those critical subsystems than an overhaul mode,” he said.

“New Shepard was designed for reusability from the beginning,” he said, emphasizing the development of the BE-3 engine with its “deep throttling” capability that allows it to be effectively used for both launch and landing. That work, he said, has benefits beyond New Shepard itself, given the company’s long-term plans to develop an orbital launch vehicle.

“That booster flight profile is very similar to what we will use eventually in our orbital flight program,” he said. “Gaining experience launching and recovering and reflying a cryogenic launch vehicle has direct lessons learned for our orbital launch vehicle.”

Read more of SpaceNews’ interview with Rob Meyerson, including discussion of the company’s work on the BE-4 engine and plans for an orbital launch vehicle, in the Feb. 1 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.