New Shepard liftoff
Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off on its latest test flight, NS-11, May 2. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on its latest test flight May 2, a flight that the company says brings it one step closer to flying humans later this year.

The New Shepard vehicle lifted off on the NS-11 mission at approximately 9:35 a.m. Eastern from the company’s test site in West Texas. The vehicle flew what the company called a “nominal” test profile, with the crew capsule separating from the propulsion module and reaching a peak altitude of 105.6 kilometers before landing 10 minutes later under parachutes. The propulsion module made a powered vertical landing on a nearby landing pad.

The vehicle carried 38 microgravity research payloads, the most ever on a single New Shepard flight. That included nine payloads from NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, ranging from 3D printing to biomedical experiments. Six payloads came from a research program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, three from Arizona State University and another from a high school in Huntsville, Alabama.

The flight was the fifth for this combination of crew capsule and propulsion module, and the 11th in the overall test program, dating back to April 2015. The flight, like all the previous missions, did not have people on board.

However, the company used the webcast of the flight to affirm previous statements that they plan to start flying people this year. “We’re taking one step closer to flying people on board New Shepard later this year,” Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin and commentator for the company’s webcast of the launch, said. She later described the experience customers will have “when you guys come down later this year to go flying on New Shepard.”

Blue Origin, though, has yet to disclose details such as when it plans to start selling tickets for those flights, and for how much. Cornell said that the capsule that will be used for those initial human flights is “in the barn” at the West Texas site. That capsule is named “RSS First Step,” she said, with RSS standing for Reusable Space Ship and “First Step” referring to it being the first step in the company’s long-term vision of millions of living and working in space.

The company may release more details on that first step, or subsequent ones, May 9. An April 26 tweet from the company read only “5.9.19” and included an illustration of the Endurance, the ship from Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Antarctic expedition more than a century ago. Some have speculated that it may be linked to the company’s previously stated interest in the moon, as Shackleton is the name of a crater in the south polar regions of the moon that may harbor deposits of water ice.


— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) April 26, 2019

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...