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New Shepard module after landing
The propulsion module of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle stands on the landing pad after its test flight November 23, where the module made a powered landing. (credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin sticks the landing

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In the last few weeks, officials with Blue Origin had hinted that another test flight of its New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle was coming soon, likely before the end of the year (see “Suborbital research makes a comeback”, The Space Review, November 23, 2015). But, given the company’s reputation for secrecy, it seemed likely it would announce the flight only after it happened, and not before.

“Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again,” Bezos stated.

And that’s indeed how it turned out. Last Tuesday morning, the company announced it flew New Shepard on a suborbital test flight from the company’s site in remote West Texas. This flight, the first since April, sent the vehicle’s crew capsule to a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers, several kilometers higher than the April flight and, symbolically, just beyond the 100-kilometer demarcation of space widely accepted by the industry.

What garnered the most attention was what happened to the vehicle’s propulsion module at the end of the flight. The propulsion module is designed to make a vertical landing using the same BE-3 engine used for liftoff. On the April test flight, a hydraulics problem—the company gave no further details—prevented that landing. Last week, everything worked as planned, and the module set down on its landing pad upright: a bit of a sporty landing, perhaps, as video of the landing showed it swaying as it maneuvered into position in the final moments before touching down.

Blue Origin and its billionaire founder, Jeff Bezos, declared success, calling the landing a milestone for the company’s efforts to develop reusable launch vehicles. “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket,” he said in a statement about the flight. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

In a later conference call with reporters, Bezos declared the flight a complete success. “As far as we can tell from our quick-look inspections and a quick look at the data, this mission was completely nominal, and this vehicle is ready to fly again,” he said.

Bezos said that, after the April flight, Blue Origin replaced the hydraulics system that failed on that test with a “completely new design” as well as a redundant system. “That system performed perfectly on this flight,” he said. “Both pumps performed nominally.”

While the flight was heralded in some quarters as the first successful reusable rocket, there are several caveats. First and foremost, New Shepard hasn’t demonstrated it’s reusable since that module hasn’t flown again, although Bezos confirmed that is the company’s intent.

“It’ll be some number of weeks before we fly that hardware again,” he said. “Also, as we examine all the data very closely, and inspect the hardware, we may find some things, some subsystems, that we want to improve and make more robust, modify in some way, and if we find that we’ll do it.”

“The hardest part of vertical landing and reusability is probably the final landing segment, which is the same for both boosters,” Bezos said in response to Musk’s comments.

Also, other vehicles—rocket-powered, at the very least, if not a classical rocket—have been reused. In the 1960s, the three X-15 vehicles flew nearly 200 flights, including some to and beyond 100 kilometers altitude. More than a decade ago, SpaceShipOne flew to altitudes of more than 100 kilometers three times, the last two in flights less than a week apart to win the Ansari X PRIZE.

And then there’s SpaceX. The company has tried landing the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on a ship in the Atlantic twice earlier this year, coming close to making a landing. It also tested vertical landings, albeit at much lower altitudes and velocities, with its Grasshopper vehicle and F9R demonstrator, the latter destroyed in an August 2014 test at the company’s test site near McGregor, Texas.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter the morning of the announcement to congratulate Blue Origin, but also try and set the record straight. “Not quite ‘rarest,’” he said in one, referring to Bezos’ quote about the “rarest of beasts.” “SpaceX Grasshopper rocket did 6 suborbital flights 3 years ago & is still around.”

Musk, in other tweets, also noted the historical record of the X-15 and SpaceShipOne. He added that Falcon 9 is an orbital vehicle capable of much higher speeds than New Shepard, which on its flight reached a top speed of Mach 3.72, a small fraction of orbital velocity.

Asked about Musk’s comments in the conference call, Bezos appeared unbowed, making three points to support his company’s efforts. He argued that the Falcon 9 first stage is, like New Shepard, a suborbital vehicle in and of itself, and thus the comparison to an orbital vehicle wasn’t valid.

“The second point that I would make is that the SpaceX first stage does an in-space deceleration burn to make their reentry environment more benign,” he said. “So, if anything, the Blue Origin booster that we just flew and demonstrated may be the one that flies through the harsher reentry environment.”

Finally, he pointed to the landing itself. “The hardest part of vertical landing and reusability is probably the final landing segment, which is the same for both boosters,” he said. The unstated argument: our landing technology works better than yours.

Last week’s test is just the first of many for New Shepard, Bezos said. “We’re going to do many, many test flights before we’re ready to put humans on board,” he said. “We’ll do some stressful test flights. We’ll find the corners of the environment and we’ll do some very stressful, challenging flights.”

“We are on the verge, in my opinion, of a new golden era of rocketry,” Bezos said, “and I believe that, one day, all rockets will have landing gear.”

That includes one “very dramatic” test flight, Bezos said, that will involve an in-flight test of the abort system on the crew capsule near maximum dynamic pressure. “That will almost certainly destroy the booster, but we want to test that condition to convince ourselves, to verify the design of the escape system.”

While company officials said commercial New Shepard flights of uncrewed research payloads could start as soon as next summer, Bezos said flights with people are still a couple of years off. “It’s impossible to predict how long that series of tests will take,” he said, because it will depend on how well the tests turn out. “Hopefully, a couple of years from now, we’ll be putting humans on New Shepard and taking them into space.”

The work on New Shepard also informs Blue Origin’s plans for an orbital vehicle, which the company publicly disclosed only on September (see “Blue goes to Florida”, The Space Review, September 21, 2015). The first stage of that vehicle is designed to be reusable; illustrations of the vehicle shown at the September event in Florida showed what appeared to be landing legs on the side of the stage, not unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

“What we have demonstrated with this flight of New Shepard is a complete reuse of a booster stage,” Bezos said. “One of the things that I love about the vertical takeoff and vertical landing architecture is that it is scalable to very large size.” The first stage of the orbital vehicle, he said, “will be architecturally identical to the vehicle that we just flew, because the environments are very similar.”

“We are on the verge, in my opinion, of a new golden era of rocketry,” he said near the end of the press briefing, “and I believe that, one day, all rockets will have landing gear.”

Last Monday was also a golden day for Blue Origin. “Demonstrating reuse of that booster, I can assure you here in mission control in West Texas, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Bezos said. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”