As it continues to progress toward human flights, Blue Origin will perform another potentially dangerous uncrewed test today of its New Shepard rocket and spacecraft. Although it has not yet provided details, the company says it will fly “a high altitude escape motor test—pushing the rocket to its limits.” The test is scheduled to begin at 10 am EDT (14:00 UTC) at the company’s West Texas launch site.
This is the ninth test of the reusable New Shepard system and the third in which it has included commercial payloads on its short suborbital flights. This time, the company is also flying a suite of materials from Blue Origin employees as a part of its internal “Fly My Stuff” program. (It’s unclear at this point exactly how “abort test” and “payload” fit together in the same mission—presumably the high altitude abort will be followed by the New Shepard spacecraft pressing to orbit, but we’re not exactly sure. Blue Origin will have more details about exactly what’s going on when its webcast starts.)
This is not the first high-energy test of New Shepard. In October, 2016, the company conducted a lower altitude in-flight escape test when engineers intentionally triggered the spacecraft’s launch abort system at about 45 seconds after launch and an altitude of 16,000 feet. Such systems are designed to fire quickly and separate the crew capsule from the booster during an emergency.
The rocket was not designed to survive an in-flight escape and was slammed with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force and hot exhaust. But though the test was conducted at Max-Q—that is, the window of time during which the vehicle is subject to the highest mechanical and aerodynamic stress—the propulsion module did not break apart. That rocket is now part of a road show and will eventually go to a museum.
Assuming success Wednesday, the aerospace company founded by Jeff Bezos appears to be getting closer to flying humans into space on New Shepard. Company officials say “test passengers” could go into space late this year, with paying customers taking flights in 2019. There is speculation that Bezos himself, the world’s richest person, will be among the first people to fly on New Shepard.
The webcast below should begin about 20 minutes before the test starts.