New Shepard Mission 8 launch
Blue Origin's New Shepard lifts off on its eighth test flight April 29 from West Texas. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

Updated 3:50 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle performed its first suborbital test flight in more than four months April 29 as the company moves a step closer to flying people.

The vehicle, in the eighth test flight in the vehicle’s development program, lifted off from the company’s West Texas launch site at 1:06 p.m. Eastern. The launch was delayed by more than three hours because of thunderstorms in the area overnight that delayed launch preparations, as well as unspecified issues that caused several holds in the final countdown.

During the 10-minute flight the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 105.9 kilometers, near the planned altitude of 106.7 kilometers that the company said prior to liftoff was intended to “push the envelope” of the vehicle’s performance, which has previously flown to altitudes of about 100 kilometers. Company founder Jeff Bezos later tweeted that the vehicle reached a peak altitude of 107 kilometers. The New Shepard propulsion module made a powered vertical landing on a pad near the launch site, while the crew capsule used parachutes and a retrorocket to land a short time later.

The company declared the flight a success on its webcast of the mission. “Another spectacular test mission. It looks nominal from here,” said Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin and host of the webcast, after the landings of the propulsion module and crew capsule.

The test flight didn’t carry people but did have on board several research payloads. Three of them were from German universities, arranged by the German microgravity research center ZARM and funded by the German space agency DLR. The vehicle also carried a payload from NASA’s Johnson Space Center to monitor environmental conditions in the capsule and one from Solstar, a New Mexico company, to demonstrate a wireless communications payload that could provide wifi for people flying on future New Shepard missions.

New Shepard’s previous test flight was Dec. 12. That suborbital mission, the first in more than a year for the company, marked the debut of a new crew capsule and propulsion module that incorporated improvements from the earlier series of test flights, and with modifications like windows in the capsule intended for use on commercial missions. That same hardware was used on this flight.

In an April 19 interview at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith said the pause in test flights after the December mission was to allow the company to incorporate a number of improvements to the vehicle.

“We continue to make updates to what we’ve seen because we always want to make sure we continue to improve the operational readiness of that vehicle and getting to a very stable and reliable configuration,” he said, saying at the time he hoped for a test flight in the “next couple of weeks.”

“We would have liked to have had a set of launches earlier in the year, but some of those design incorporations have taken longer that we’d like,” he said. Those changes, he said, were intended to improve the “operability” of the vehicle and included changes to communications and navigation, among other details, down to “the paint job on the outside of the vehicle.”

Smith said he expected the company to perform several test flights this year to ensure that the vehicle was in a stable configuration. “What we want to do is a series of flights, test out the incorporation of some of the changes that we’ve made, and then make sure we’ve got a stable configuration that we can repeat several times before we get to first human flight.” That first flight with people on board, he said, is “hopefully” planned before the end of the year.

New Shepard is designed to carry up to six people on a flight. Blue Origin plans to use the vehicle for suborbital space tourism as well as research, and among the job openings on the company’s website is for an “Astronaut Experience Manager” that would support that effort, from sales and marketing to development of the “astronaut hospitality program, training content, and facility definition.”

Blue Origin, though, has yet to start selling tickets for its flights, in sharp contrast to Virgin Galactic, another suborbital space tourism company that started sales more than a decade ago but has yet to fly a customer because of delays in development of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle. In the April 19 interview, Smith didn’t give a schedule for either flying paying customers or selling tickets, or even setting a price for those tickets.

“We get that question a lot,” Smith said. “We continue to be head-down on making sure that the configuration is good and stable and ready to fly. Once we have that, and once we all feel confident that that’s the case, then we’ll actually have the conversations internally about what prices are, how many we’re going to sell, what that whole process looks like.”

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...