Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket for space tourists completed a rare trifecta during a 5 October test flight by successfully reaching space, recovering the booster and performing a crew capsule escape test.
The fifth test flight of the New Shepard 2 vehicle advances the Kent, Washington-based company’s bid to start flying passengers in revenue service within two years.
New Shepard 2 is designed with an escape system that allows the passengers to survive a malfunction by the booster rocket at any stage of the ascent to roughly 100,000m (328,000ft) above the Earth.
The 5 October test flight validated the escape system works during the most challenging phase of the ascent as the rocket reaches maximum dynamic pressure at roughly 16,000ft above the ground.
At that moment, the solid rocket motor within the New Shepard 2 capsule fired, pushing the upper-stage away from the booster with 70,000lb of force. The capsule continued to climb for several seconds before beginning a descent. Three small parachutes deployed to steady the capsule. As they were jettisoned, three larger, main parachutes opened to slow the descent.
Finally, a ring of retro rockets attached the capsule fired shortly before the spacecraft touched down not far from Blue Origin’s launch pad in West Texas.
Meanwhile, the booster rocket continued its upward trajectory into space, despite the change in aerodynamic shape mid-flight.
Blue Origin has demonstrated on four previous test flights that the booster rocket can be recovered by using retro rockets to steady the craft during descent. Company officials acknowledged before the fifth flight that the rocket could be lost as a result of the capsule escape system test. However, the rocket’s recovery system worked as designed, demonstrating a new level of reliability for the New Shepard 2 booster.