Blue Origin Wraps Up Commercial Crew Work with Escape System Test

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WASHINGTON — Blue Origin, the Kent, Wash.-based aerospace startup founded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, tested an emergency crew escape system Oct. 19 at its launch site near Van Horn, Texas, the company said.

In the test, the pusher-style abort system launched Blue Origin’s suborbital crew capsule, one part of the reusable New Shepard suborbital system the company is working on, to an altitude of about 703 meters. The craft then deployed its parachute to come in for a soft landing about 497 meters away from its launch pad, the company said in an Oct. 22 press release.

The pusher escape system is designed to send the crew capsule into a safe, controlled flight in the event of an off-nominal launch event, according to Blue Origin’s press release.

The Oct. 19 pad abort test was the final milestone in Blue Origin’s $22 million Commercial Crew Development (CCDev)-2 Space Act Agreement with NASA. The company stands to receive $1.9 million for completing this milestone, according to the terms of the company’s 2011 agreement with NASA.

The test was conducted several months later than NASA and Blue Origin anticipated when the CCDev-2 Space Act Agreement was signed; it was supposed to take place in April. A problem with the casing for the escape system’s Aerojet-provided solid-rocket motor was at least partially to blame, said Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of strategy and business development..

An Aerojet supplier “had issues making the case for the motor,” Alexander told Space News in an Oct. 22 phone interview. “We chose to accept some delay to incorporate enhancements to the thrust vector control system and to conduct additional tests to assure optimal performance.”

Aerojet spokesman Glenn Mahone did not reply to multiple requests for comment the week of Oct. 25.

“Whenever a milestone is missed, for any reason, NASA makes an assessment to determine whether continuing with the Agreement is in the best interests of the government as required by the Space Act Agreement between NASA and the partner,” NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto wrote in an Oct. 25 email. “For competitive reasons, and to protect company proprietary information, NASA does not generally release details of those internal assessments.”

Besides the $22 million worth of work Blue Origin just completed, the company’s CCDev 2 Space Act Agreement with NASA also included $5.2 million worth of optional milestones covering additional development work that could be called for at the agency’s discretion. Alexander said Blue Origin was not pursuing the additional work, $2.5 million worth of which was for additional escape system testing.

Blue Origin is working on a reusable suborbital vehicle and a biconic-shaped orbital craft dubbed Space Vehicle. The pusher escape system tested Oct. 19 would be used only on the suborbital vehicle, but Blue Origin plans to use a similar system on its orbital Space Vehicle, Alexander said. The orbital Space Vehicle would initially launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, which would later be replaced with a rocket Blue Origin is developing internally, according to the company’s current plan.

After winning awards in the first two rounds of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the agency’s initiative to fund development of privately operated crew transportation systems, Blue Origin opted not to apply for funding in the program’s third round, which is known as Commercial Crew Integrated Capability. In August, NASA announced that Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. would split $1.2 billion of third-round commercial crew funding. NASA wants at least one of these three companies to be ready to fly astronauts to the international space station in 2017.