If there’s any anti-science sentiment around these parts it wasn’t evident last Friday at Peddler Brewing Company in Ballard, where some 500 space enthusiasts packed the brewer’s beer garden—yes, we were sitting outside, in Seattle, in January—to hear from employees of Kent-based Blue Origin about the company’s latest testing and the prospects for an affordable ride to space any time soon. The event was the latest installment of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, organized by graduate students in astronomy at the University of Washington.
“Our ultimate mission is to have millions of people living and working in space,” said Sarah Knights, outreach coordinator at Blue Origin. “The way that we’re focused on that is to lower the cost of human spaceflight, and one of the ways to do that is to make vehicles reusable, so that’s our primary focus right now.”
Blue Origin’s current test vehicle is the New Shepard, a capsule and vertical takeoff/vertical landing rocket. It’s powered by the BE-3, for Blue Engine 3, which is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen and can deliver 110,000 pounds at full thrust. As suggested, the rocket blasts off, and then lands softly back on Earth.
“As it’s coming back down we can throttle it back to about twenty percent of its full throttle, so that means that as the propulsion module is coming down we can have an equal thrust-to-weight ratio, find the landing pad, and very gently set it down,” Knights explained.
Blue Origin safety test
Dan Kuchan, Product Development Team lead engineer on the New Glenn program at Blue Origin, said the most recent test of New Shepard, conducted in October, was of the vehicle’s full-envelope crew escape system.
“That means that if the rocket at some point decides that we can’t go to space today, the crew capsule can jettison itself and get out of Dodge,” Kuchan explained. It was the first such in-flight escape test for a space vehicle since 1965, during the Apollo program. Kuchan showed this video of the flight test during the presentation.
“That was an awesome test and it capped off the fifth flight and landing for that booster,” Kuchan said. “The system worked flawlessly.”
So far New Shepard has only flown without a crew, but they hope to have astronauts on board soon. That’s where Nicholas Patrick comes in. Patrick, a former NASA astronaut who flew on space shuttle missions for construction of the International Space Station, is now Blue Origin’s human integration architect.
“I’m responsible for worrying constantly about every aspect of flying on our spacecraft,” Patrick said. That includes everything from meeting rules and regulations, testing to make everything right, and every imaginable human factor.
They chose a capsule rather than a winged vehicle like the space shuttle partly for safety. The smaller capsule can get away from the booster quickly, as demonstrated in the video above. Patrick said it’s also a better way to travel.
“For those who are paying to ride aboard a New Shepard in the coming years this is a more authentic rocket flight experience than most other ways you could get to space,” he said.
The New Shepard capsule has big windows, the largest ever flown in space, and all passengers will have one of their own; there are no middle seats on New Shepard. Suborbital flights will last about eleven minutes, and passengers will be weightless for several minutes.
“We want to give them the best imaginable experience,” Patrick said. He showed this video animation of what a New Shepard flight will be like.
“That’s a New Shepard flight that we hope will be available to anybody who can get in and out of the capsule, who can tolerate the three Gs on ascent, and a little higher on descent,” Patrick said. “So start saving.”
At what cost?
How much to save is a question that Patrick said hasn’t yet been answered.
“Obviously everybody’s goal is to get this price down a long way,” he said. “We’re not going to get millions of people living and working in space by charging a quarter of a million or a hundred thousand dollars just for a suborbital flight.”
The question of when people will fly on New Shepard also hasn’t been answered.
“We’re not driven by that kind of schedule,” Patrick said. “We’re driven by our flight test program and the success or challenges we face in each of those tests.”
“What I can tell you is that I expect we’ll be flying people in the next year or two,” he added.
Kuchan noted that, in a way, New Shepard astronauts will be human guinea pigs.
“New Shepard and everything we’re doing, sending tourists into space, is all a way for us to practice and master landing a reusable rocket, and using it in a commercially viable way, so that over the next 50, 100, 200 years we can move civilization deeper into space,” Kuchan said.
Next steps: a bigger rocket
Blue Origin’s motto is gradatim ferociter—step by step, ferociously. The next step for the company is on the drawing board now: the New Glenn, which will get payloads into Earth orbit. The New Glenn will dwarf the New Shepard. While the latter is powered by one BE-3 engine that delivers 110,000 pounds of thrust, the New Glenn will have seven BE-4 engines that deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust each. That’s a lot of oomph. Again, there’s no totally firm timeline, but Kuchan said they’ve been asked to deliver the rocket by the end of the decade, and added that they plan to do so. It’s another step on the way to having millions of people living and working in space.
“Every single decision that gets made at Blue Origin is weighed against that ultimate goal,” Knights said.