new shepard propulsion module landing
The propulsion module of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle after landing Oct. 5. The booster made a powered landing despite predictions before the flight it would not survive a test of the crew capsule's abort motor. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin carried out a successful test of the abort system of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle Oct. 5, managing to safely land both the vehicle’s crew capsule and propulsion module.

The New Shepard vehicle lifted off from its test site in West Texas at 11:36 a.m. Eastern. The launch was delayed by more than a half-hour because of an unspecified problem with the vehicle discovered a little more than one minute before the original liftoff time, causing the countdown to hold and they recycle before restarting.

Approximately 45 seconds after liftoff, the vehicle’s crew capsule fired its solid-fuel abort motor, sending it away from the propulsion module. The capsule then descended under parachutes as it would on a typical flight after separating from the booster, landing four minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff.

Blue Origin had warned that the abort test would likely destroy the propulsion module, as the force of the abort motor pushed it off course and subjected it to unplanned aerodynamic forces. However, the booster continued to fly normally after the capsule escaped. The booster descended to a powered landing on a pad seven and a half minutes after liftoff, leaning to one side slightly and appearing singed, but otherwise in good condition.

The company emphasized prior to the test that a successful demonstration of the capsule abort system was the only objective of this test flight. “Today, we’re likely going to lose the New Shepard booster,” Ariane Cornell, one of the hosts of the Blue Origin webcast, said prior to liftoff. “Today’s mission is totally focused on a successful crew capsule escape with the understanding that the booster will likely be lost.”

The test was the fifth flight of the propulsion module, which made successful vertical powered landings on previous test flights between November 2015 and June 2016. The company said prior to the test that, regardless of the outcome, it would retire this module after the flight. Cornell said afterwards that both the module and crew capsule will be retired, “but we’ll certainly find a place for these vehicles to be seen by everybody.”

The New Shepard crew capsule fires its abort motor as planned during the Oct. 5 test flight. Credit: Blue Origin
The New Shepard crew capsule fires its abort motor as planned during the Oct. 5 test flight. Credit: Blue Origin

One other propulsion module was lost on an April 2015 test flight because of a hydraulics problem that prevented a landing. On a tour of the company’s factory in Kent, Washington, earlier this year, three other propulsion modules were in various stages of construction. Cornell said that “replacement next-gen New Shepard boosters and capsules” are being assembled for upcoming tests.

The successful abort test is a major milestone in Blue Origin’s development of the New Shepard system, which the company plans to offer commercially for space tourism and research applications. The company hasn’t said when those commercial flights will begin, and is not yet selling tickets for those flights.

Those who do fly on New Shepard will get a special perk beyond the flight itself, Cornell said during the webcast. “We’re going to make sure that our astronauts that fly on New Shepard are going to get first access to tickets on New Glenn,” she said, an orbital launch system the company announced last month that will begin flights by the end of the decade.

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...