The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off on its first developmental test flight over Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site April 29. The crew capsule reached apogee at 93,600 meters before beginning its descent back to Earth. Credit: Blue Origin photo

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time April 29 on a mission that took the vehicle to the edge of space, but failed to recover a part of the vehicle afterwards.

Blue Origin announced in a statement late April 29 that the vehicle flew its first “developmental” test flight earlier that day from the company’s test site in a remote region of West Texas. The uncrewed vehicle flew to a peak altitude of more than 93,500 meters and achieved a top speed of Mach 3

The company said that most elements of the vehicle, including its BE-3 main engine developed in-house, performed well. The crew capsule separated from the vehicle’s propulsion module and parachuted back to Earth. “Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” the company said.

However, the company said it was unable to recover the propulsion module, which is designed to make a vertical landing using its main engine. “Unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent,” the company said, not going into greater detail about the problem.

Blue Origin said it had been working to improve the module’s hydraulics system prior to the flight, and will incorporate those changes into future modules. “Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we’ll be ready to fly again soon,” the company said.

The company, known for its secretive nature, did not announce the test flight in advance. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction in the airspace above Blue Origin’s Texas test site April 27 for “space flight operations” on April 29.

FAA officials recently suggested that a test flight was upcoming. “They’ll be flying their reusable launch vehicle in the next couple of weeks. Watch the news for that,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in an April 21 presentation to the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here.

The company did disclose in early April that it had completed development of its BE-3 engine, but offered no timetable for the test flights beyond starting them later this year.

“We expect a series of dozens of flights over the extent of the test program,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said April 7 during a media teleconference about the BE-3. “We expect, over the next couple of years, to be flying regularly with the New Shepard vehicle.”

Blue Origin plans to eventually bring New Shepard into service, offering suborbital flights for space tourism and research applications. While the vehicle can be flown remotely, it is designed to carry three or more people to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers.

“We’re probably a few years away from selling tickets,” Meyerson said April 7 when asked about when commercial flights would start. “We’re getting close, and we’re excited about where we are.”

Work on New Shepard and its BE-3 engine is separate from its work on the more powerful BE-4 engine it is developing for United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan launch vehicle. The BE-3 uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants and can generate up to 110,000 pounds-force of thrust. The BE-4 uses liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen and produces five times the thrust.

Besides providing the BE-4 to ULA, Blue Origin plans to use that engine in a future orbital launch vehicle. “We’re already designing New Shepard’s sibling, her Very Big Brother – an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard’s size” and uses the BE-4 engine, the company said in its April 29 statement.


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...