Blue Origin announces next New Shepard suborbital flight

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WASHINGTON — Blue Origin plans to conduct the latest test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle May 2 as the company, and others in the industry, seek ways to allow NASA-funded researchers to fly with their payloads on such missions.

The company announced on Twitter May 1 that the 11th flight of the New Shepard vehicle is scheduled for May 2 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern from the company’s test site in West Texas. The announcement came a couple hours after the publication of a Notice to Airmen, or NOTAM, by the Federal Aviation Administration restricting airspace surrounding the test site for a four-day period starting May 2. Such restrictions have, in the past, been associated with New Shepard tests.

The flight, the first by the vehicle in more than three months, will carry 38 microgravity research payloads, Blue Origin tweeted. The company did not respond to an email request for information about the upcoming test.

NASA separately announced May 1 that will have nine payloads on the flight through its Flight Opportunities program for suborbital experiments. The payloads include 3D printing experiments and biomedical research as well as testing of a centrifuge that can simulate lunar and Martian gravity conditions.

The vehicle will also include a “standardized framework” of flight hardware that will be flight tested for future student-designed space experiments. “This opens the door to flying more experiments for more schools, and that means exposing more teachers and students to the promise of spaceflight,” said Elizabeth Kennick, president of Teachers In Space, the organization that developed the hardware, in the NASA statement.

This New Shepard flight, like previous New Shepard tests, is not expected to carry people on board. Future research flights, though, could have the opportunity to carry human-tended payloads, as well as those on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Under the Flight Opportunities program, however, researchers cannot fly along with their payloads, limiting human-tended payloads to those can be run by the staff of the launch provider. Those companies, though, are looking to expand the number of people eligible to fly with their payloads.

“We have potential customers approaching us with these needs,” said Audrey Powers of Blue Origin during a meeting of the regulatory and policy committee of the NASA Advisory Council May 1.

She said both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have started discussions with NASA about expanding the scope of the current Flight Opportunities program to include flying human-tended payloads. The committee discussed a set of findings and recommendations at its meeting about issues that could lead to human-tended payloads.

“The current Flight Opportunities program today allows Blue Origin to fly its employees and tend Flight Opportunities payloads,” Powers said. “We want to expand or broaden that so somebody besides a Blue Origin or Virgin employee can fly and tend those payloads.”

This is not the first time NASA has considered supporting human-tended payloads for Flight Opportunities. In 2013, then NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver announced at a suborbital research conference that the agency would allow researchers to fly with their payloads, but the agency didn’t follow through with developing guidelines for that.

In December 2017, Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator for space technology at the time, said that the agency would again consider human-tended payloads, proposing a process similar to what it uses for flying people on commercial parabolic aircraft flights. NASA hasn’t provided an update on those efforts since then.