NS-15 launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off April 14 from the company’s West Texas test site. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin completed another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle April 14, putting the company on the verge of finally flying people.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle lifted off from the company’s West Texas test site, known as Launch Site One by the company, at 12:51 p.m. Eastern. The capsule, separating from its booster after the powered phase of flight, reached a peak altitude of about 106 kilometers before parachuting to a soft landing 10 and a half minutes after liftoff, three minutes after the booster made a powered landing.

The flight profile for the mission, designated NS-15 by the company, closely followed previous test flights. They key differences for this flight were the activities before and after the flight, as the company tested procedures it will use for later crewed flights.

About 45 minutes before liftoff, four Blue Origin employees playing the role of customers drove to the pad with other personnel, simulating the activities before an actual crewed flight. Two of them then boarded the capsule, strapping in and testing communications before exiting. They then left the launchpad and returned to mission control before the uncrewed vehicle launched.

After the capsule landing, those personnel returned to the capsule, in this case to test the process astronauts will follow to exit the capsule at the end of the flight.

Blue Origin used the webcast to provide some more information about its human spaceflight plans. Customers will arrive at the West Texas site three days before a mission for training, staying in facilities across a highway from the launch site.

During training, and in final launch preparations, the six astronauts flying on a New Shepard mission will be accompanied by “CrewMember 7,” a Blue Origin employee. There will be two employees carrying that role, one accompanying the astronauts as they strap into the capsule and the other that will serve as a capcom, or capsule communicator, in mission control.

The NS-14 flight carried no people, but instead the company’s “Mannequin Skywalker” anthropomorphic test device and more than 25,000 student postcards. Blue Origin noted in the webcast that it planned to donate Mannequin Skywalker after the end of the test program to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Exactly when that test program will end and commercial crewed flights will begin remain uncertain. The company offered no updates on its schedule for flying people, either company personnel or customers, during the event. It also did not discuss when it planned to start selling tickets or what price they will charge.

Company officials, though, continued to hint that crewed missions will begin soon, albeit years behind original projections. “We’re getting so close to flying people here at Blue Origin. This is a very, very important step on our march to first human flight,” said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, during the company’s webcast of the NS-15 mission. “You can almost taste it.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...