New Shepard landing
The propulsion module of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle makes a powered landing at the end of a June 19 test flight at the company's West Texas site. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin flew its New Shepard suborbital vehicle again June 19, with the vehicle’s propulsion module making its fourth consecutive powered landing while its crew capsule tested its parachute systems.

The vehicle lifted off from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas at 10:36 a.m. Eastern time, about 20 minutes later than previously announced because of delays in launch preparations caused by high temperatures at the site. The flight was webcast by Blue Origin for the first time, and this was only the second test flight the company announced in advance.

The propulsion module landed safely about 7 minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff, touching down vertically on a landing pad under rocket power. The crew capsule landed under parachutes about two and a half minutes later. The vehicle reached a peak altitude of 101,041 meters, the company said on the webcast, slightly lower than some previous tests but above the 100-kilometer von Kármán line commonly used as the demarcation of space.

A key element of this flight was to test the redundancy of the crew capsule’s landing system by intentionally deploying only two of its three drogue chutes and main parachutes. The capsule still had a “picture perfect” landing, company engineer Geoff Huntington said on the webcast. “That was as good as we could have hoped for.”

As with the previous test flight in April, Blue Origin carried microgravity research payloads. This flight included three experiments from universities in the United States and Germany for astrophysics and fluid mechanics studies in microgravity. These experiments are part of Blue Origin’s program to fly “pathfinder” experiments before beginning routine commercial suborbital research flights.

New Shepard capsule parachutes
The New Shepard crew capsule descends under two parachutes on its June 19 test flight. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

The flight was the fifth of the New Shepard system, dating back to an April 2015 flight where the crew capsule landed successfully but the propulsion module crashed. Successive test flights in November of 2015 and January and April of 2016 all featured successful landings of both the crew capsule and a new propulsion module.

This flight was the fourth of this propulsion module, which the company is testing to demonstrate its reusability. The module has required only minor maintenance between flights, at a cost in the “low thousands of dollars” per flight, the company said on the webcast.

The New Shepard test flight program is expected to continue through at least 2017. An upcoming test flight will demonstrate the crew capsule’s abort motor in an in-flight test, a test that may result in the loss of the vehicle’s propulsion module.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said in an on-stage interview at the National Air and Space Museum here June 14 that he expects to start test flights with people on board in 2017, with commercial flights slated to begin in 2018. The company is not yet selling tickets for those commercial flights, nor has even set a price for them, although Bezos said he expects them to cost similar to Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is charging $250,000 to $300,000 a seat.

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...