credit: Blue Origin
Whatever happened to Blue Origin? was to be the title of a blog I had planned to write and then publish over the festive holiday. As Clark Lindsey has done it again and chanced upon a new entry to the Blue Origin website now seems as good a time as any to speculate wildly about this secretive effort funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos
At the end of October I had contacted Blue Origin's media relations people about any forthcoming news as it is literally years since anything has been heard from them
But the reply was pretty blunt
"I understand you called regarding Blue Origin. We appreciate your interest. As you are probably aware, Blue Origin is not conducting any media interviews at this time. They have made no recent announcements or issued any updates. Thank you."
Well now we know they were looking to provide an update and most interestingly of all we get a timetable
Flight testing of prototype New Shepard vehicles began in 2006. Blue Origin expects the first opportunities for experiments requiring an accompanying researcher astronaut to be available in 2012. Flight opportunities in 2011 may be available for autonomous or remotely-controlled experiments on an uncrewed flight test.
As Clark points out due to legal requirements to issue NOTAMs its likely that many of those flights were tethered with the exception of the single 13 November 2006 flight test that we know of using the technology demonstrator called Goddard
In the comments section of Clark's blog post there is a link to a 17 November Linkedin post regarding engineers at Blue Origin that reveals that a third test vehicle is being integrated
Just to recap on what exactly Bezos is developing at its Seattle and Van Horn, Texas facilities, his Blue Origin's New Shepard programme is developing a manned suborbital vehicle for tourism and scientific research
Called New Shepard it had been thought that it would be based on the McDonnell Douglas Delta Clipper vehicle, I was even told by people who were working for Bezos that that was the case
And according to the US Federal Aviation Administration's environmental impact assessment for the Van Horn launch site, New Shepard would be conical in shape (like the Goddard), would be 15m (49.1ft) high, have a base diameter of 7m, use 54,400kg (119,000lb) of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene, and have a thrust capability of 230,000lb (1,000kN). It was sounding very DC-X like!
In space, the Crew Capsule will separate from the PM and the two will reenter and land separately for re-use. The Crew Capsule will land softly under a parachute at the launch site.
Now we know that the vehicle's propulsion and Crew Capsule (CC) sections will separate while in the FAA environmental report that was still an open issue. It would seem the inefficiencies of powered descent have finally caught up with Bezos' engineers
And unsurprisingly Bezos' team's progress has been subject to the slippage that all aerospace programmes ultimately suffer with the 2010 in-service date moving to 2012 - who wants to put money on it that that date slips again
According to the FAA report Bezos expected to be "conducting 25 or fewer launches per year" by now. If they mean untethered by the word launches then we know Blue Origin is way, way below where they expected to be
My guess is that this third test vehicle could be the crew capsule. It is also of interest that the new Bezos update refers to "three or more positions to be used by astronauts or experiment racks. Experiment mass allocation [of] 120kg (264lb) available per position (including rack)," indicating a minimum payload capability of 360kg
Now is that experiment mass allocation just the experiment or does it include the rack? Because 120kg does sound like a 95% percentile human being plus launch and entry suit
I think Goddard was strictly a propulsion and control demonstrator. The second unnamed test vehicle could have been either a sub-scale or full-scale first-stage, which it would appear from the qoute above uses powered descent
I think a sub-scale first-stage is plausible as it can be tethered and used as a booster for the crew capsule launch abort system (LAS) tests. Perhaps ground based LAS tests will be the next effort to be made public - hint hint Blue Origin if you're reading this
So, my guestimates for a testing timetable is the following;
End of 2011 first test flight of the entire integrated vehicle, perhaps slipping into 2012
BO's Little Joe (scale first-stage) launches CC test article for parachute landing in 2011
Parachute drop tests in 2010
Increasing altitude powered ascent/descent of first-stage through 2010 and 2011
Ground based LAS tests 2009
BO Little Joe launches of instrumented CC test article for avionics and other subsystems
Lots of altitude chamber testing of the first stage's engines until first test flight
Repeated test stand full mission duration firings of full-scale first-stage test article