Blue Origin’s tourism rocket — designed to vault paying customers on brief trips to the edge of space — successfully launched Tuesday morning on an uncrewed science mission.
The New Shepard rocket lifted off at 11:43 a.m. ET from Blue Origin’s facilities on a private ranch in West Texas. The 33 science experiments on board experienced a few minutes of microgravity before safely returning to Earth.
The rocket booster touched down about seven minutes after launch, followed by a safe landing of the capsule about 10 minutes after launch.
The first launch attempt was scrubbed Monday due to teams working a ground system issue. But mission control didn’t appear to encounter any issues during Tuesday’s launch, and the test flight quickly worked its way through the team’s list of objectives.
Though no one was on board the flight, the success could tee up Blue Origin to restart its trips to space for thrill seekers.
“We look forward to flying our next crewed flight soon,” said Erika Wagner, senior director of emerging market development for Blue Origin, on the live launch broadcast at the conclusion of the flight.
The anticipated return to flight occurred after the Jeff Bezos-founded company spent more than a year recuperating from a failed uncrewed test flight.
A New Shepard rocket and spacecraft was set to launch a batch of science instruments on September 12, 2022. But one minute into flight, the rocket endured Max Q — an aerospace term that refers to a moment of maximum stress on a vehicle at a relatively low altitude where the atmosphere is still fairly thick, and the rocket is moving at nearly the speed of sound.
Around that time, the rocket appeared to emit a massive burst of flames. The New Shepard capsule, which rides atop the rocket, then initiated its launch abort system — firing up a small engine to blast itself safely away from the malfunctioning rocket. That system worked as intended, parachuting the capsule to a safe landing.
Blue Origin later revealed that the cause of the failure was a problem with the engine nozzle, a large cone that directs the flaming exhaust at the rocket’s bottom. Onboard computers accurately detected the failure and shut the engine down, according to the company.
Before the September 2022 failure, New Shepard rockets had flown 22 consecutive successful missions — including six with passengers on board. Bezos flew aboard the rocket in 2021.
New Glenn on the horizon
New Shepard’s return to flight comes as Blue Origin is racing to deliver on another key project: It’s developing a massive rocket called New Glenn that’s capable of hauling satellites and other large payloads into orbit.
That rocket is years overdue. And the same engines that will power New Glenn’s rocket booster, the BE-4 engines, will also fuel a new line of rockets developed by United Launch Alliance — a joint Lockheed Martin and Boeing venture. United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket is slated to launch its first mission, delivering a NASA-sponsored lander to the moon, in January.
New Glenn likewise has an important first launch on the horizon, potentially carrying a NASA satellite to study the magnetized area of space around Mars as soon as next year.
Bezos admitted during last week’s podcast interview that he is “extremely nervous” about the first launch of New Glenn.
“Every launch I go to, for New Shepard, for other vehicles, too, I’m always nervous for these launches,” he said. “A first launch — to have no nervousness about that — would be some sign of derangement.”