Blue Origin abort test
The New Shepard crew capsule ignites its abort motor to separate from its propulsion module on an Oct. 5 in-flight test of the vehicle's abort system. Credit: Blue Origin

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — A “picture perfect” in-flight abort test last week by Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle keeps the company on schedule to begin crewed test flights by the end of next year, the company’s president said Oct. 13.

In a speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, Rob Meyerson said the Oct. 5 test, which demonstrated the ability of the crew capsule to safely escape its booster in an emergency, brings the company closer to start crewed flights.

“Everything looked fine. Everything was within our human tolerances,” Meyerson said of the abort test, which subjected the capsule to up to 10 g’s as it sped away from the booster.

That test was a key milestone for the company’s plans to fly humans on New Shepard for tourism or research missions. “This test got us one step closer to human spaceflight,” he added. “We’re still on track to flying people, our test astronauts, by the end of 2017, and then starting commercial flights in 2018.”

The main purpose of the test was to show that the New Shepard crew capsule could escape from the propulsion module and land safely. Blue Origin went into the test warning that the use of the solid-fuel abort motor, provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, would likely destroy the booster.

“We were pretty certain we were going to lose it,” he said of the booster. To preserve a chance of landing the booster, though, Meyerson said engineers did some analyses and made software and hardware changes. “And then, honestly, we crossed our fingers.”

The propulsion module, though, survived the ignition of the motor and made a powered landing. “Despite the abuse of 70,000 pounds of thrust blasting it, the booster barely budged off course,” he said. The data collected from that part of the test, he added, will also be used to verify models of stage separation for the company’s future orbital launch vehicles.

Both the crew capsule and propulsion module are being retired and won’t fly again, Meyerson said. New vehicles are being built at the company’s headquarters near Seattle, and Meyerson said after his speech that flight tests of those vehicles should begin within a few months.

Meyerson also briefly discussed the company’s engine development and orbital launch vehicle plans. Work on the BE-4, which will be used by Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and is being considered by United Launch Alliance for its Vulcan launch vehicle, is proceeding well. “We’re making really great process,” he said. “We plan to be conducting engine testing early next year.”

He said the company’s Florida facilities, including Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36, which is being refurbished for New Glenn missions, and a factory for that rocket under construction outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, suffered no significant damage from Hurricane Matthew, which hit the area Oct. 7.

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...