Blue Origin plans to conduct a pad-abort test in the summer of 2012, a crucial milestone in qualifying the company's New Shepard vehicle for human spaceflight.
Blue Origin, the low-profile rocket company founded by internet entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, was one of four companies to receive awards under the second round of NASA's commercial crew development programme (CCDev).
"We are getting ready to do a pad escape test with the pusher escape motor under the CCDev II programme," said Brett Alexander, Blue Origin's director of business development. "We'll do the test in the summer sometime. This is the 1.1 version if you will, the 2.0 version will take people into space."
The pusher escape motor, which uses rocket motors attached to the bottom of the crew capsule, is a marked change from traditional rockets that generally use a "tower" abort system mounted above the capsule.
© Blue Origin
Blue Origin said a second New Shepard vehicle is being built, but declined to provide additional details. Blue Origin's first vehicle was destroyed in August 2011 during a test flight from the company's facility at Van Horn in Texas. At the time of its destruction, the rocket was accelerating through mach 1.2 at approximately 45,000ft (13,725m).
"We always expected to lose it during flight testing, it was never going to be the operational vehicle," said Alexander, "and we're building the next vehicle now."
The New Shepard rocket is designed to reach apogee at approximately 100km, at which point a capsule will separate and continue on an upward trajectory. The now capsule-less rocket will tip over, deploying a flared surface to improve stability and increase drag, firing its engines just above the Earth's surface to land gently back at its launch pad.
The New Shepard suborbital vehicle under construction is merely a prelude of what is to come. The purpose of NASA's CCDev programme is to mature orbital systems capable of ferrying crew to the International Space Station (ISS), a task requiring a more sophisticated and powerful vehicle.
"For us this is a demonstrator for an orbital system," said Alexander.
The crew capsule, which has been built but not flown, is "getting ready for some additional testing now".
"The orbital programme is at the conceptual design stage," said Alexander, indicating that an orbital flight may be several years away.
"We're programming a test of all the technologies and operational capabilities we're going to need for the orbital system," he added.