New Shepard liftoff
New Shepard lifts off from Blue Origin's West Texas test site Jan. 23 on the 10th test flight of the overall suborbital vehicle development program. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle launched on its tenth test flight Jan. 23 as the company edges closer to flying people into space.

The vehicle, flying a mission designated NS-10, lifted off from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas at 10:05 a.m. Eastern. The capsule reached a peak altitude of 106.9 kilometers before landing 10 minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff, about three minutes after the vehicle’s propulsion module made a powered vertical landing.

The New Shepard capsule carried eight experiments provided by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which arranges flights of science and technology demonstration payloads on suborbital vehicles, high-altitude balloons and parabolic aircraft flights. The experiments include microgravity research in topics from fluid dynamics to planetary science, as well as payloads to measure conditions in the vehicle.

The launch was scheduled for last month but postponed because of problems with ground infrastructure at the launch site. Original plans called for the flight to carry nine experiments but one, the Suborbital Flight Experiment Monitor-2 payload from NASA’s Johnson Space Center, was not included on the final manifest released by the company, which did not disclose the reason for the change.

“Testing technologies in suborbital space with the help of commercial companies is an important step to advancing them for missions at the moon and at Mars,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a recorded statement aired during Blue Origin’s webcast of the flight. “NASA values the partnerships with our Flight Opportunities providers.”

The flight was the fourth for both this capsule and propulsion module, and the first since a July 2018 test flight that demonstrated the capsule’s abort motor. While these vehicles are intended for use only carrying payloads, a new propulsion module rated for human spaceflight was shipped by Blue Origin in late 2018 to West Texas.

“Our next milestone is taking people into space,” said Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, during the webcast. The next capsule to be delivered to the test site from the company’s factory in Washington state will carry people, she said.

“We’re aiming for the end of this year, by the end of this year,” for carrying people to space, she said, “but as we have said before, we are not in a rush. We want to take our time. We want to do this right.”

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...