With its ninth flight test, the New Shepard launch system put on quite a show on Wednesday morning. Flying from West Texas, the rocket and spacecraft ascended toward space before separating after about 2 minutes and 40 seconds. Then, three minutes into the flight, the spacecraft’s escape motor fired to pull the spacecraft rapidly upward and away from the booster.
This dramatic test pushed the spacecraft higher into space than it had ever been before, reaching an altitude of 119km. Engineers at Blue Origin wanted to see whether the capsule’s reaction control system (RCS) thrusters could stabilize the spacecraft in the space environment, and from all appearances the RCS system did just this. After about 11 minutes of flight, the spacecraft returned to Earth. The rocket, too, made a safe return to Earth.
“Anything could have happened today, and this is the best possible outcome,” the launch commentator, Ariane Cornell, said during the live webcast.
This test demonstrates that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not kidding when he said he would test the heck out of New Shepard before ever putting a human into space. This was at least the fourth time the company has put the rocket or spacecraft into an off-nominal, extreme scenario such as simulating a failing parachute, or booster-gone-wrong. So far, New Shepard has done very well each time.
“We’ll test the ever-living daylights out of the vehicle before ever putting a human on it,” Bezos said in 2016 when Ars had an opportunity to visit the Blue Origin factory in Kent, Washington. “One of the things I feel very, very strongly about is if you want to get good at spaceflight you have to practice. If you’ve ever had surgery, there are very good statistics that suggest you should find a surgeon who does it five times a week, preferably 10 or 20 times a week, because that’s the kind of rate we humans get really good at things. We need to get to the point where we are flying more than 100 times a year.”
Blue Origin will conduct a “couple of more tests” before putting humans on New Shepard, Cornell said Wednesday. This leaves open the possibility of people—perhaps including Bezos himself—flying on New Shepard late this year.