Suborbital Spotlight: Blue Origin’s New Shepard Platform

NASA’s Office of Chief Technologist has published detailed information about suborbital vehicles that will be available beginning in 2011 for researchers to conduct microgravity experiments. The vehicles are being built by Armadillo Aerospace, Blue Origin, Masten Space Systems, Virgin Galactic, and XCOR.

Today we will look at Blue Origin’s New Shepard system. The Washington State-based company is expected to begin commercial flight operations with cargo next year, with human flights following in 2012. The New Shepard vehicle will fly from Texas.


The New Shepard system is comprised of a Propulsion Module and a Crew Capsule, the latter being stacked on top of the Propulsion Module, and capable of separating from the Propulsion Module during flight.

Both the Propulsion Module and Crew Capsule will be fully reusable, carry their own avionics, and operate autonomously under the control of on-board computers. The Propulsion Module will use 90 percent concentration hydrogen peroxide as oxidizer and rocket propellant grade kerosene (RP) as propellant. The Crew Capsule will carry a solid rocket motor for use in an emergency escape situation. The Crew Capsule will have a low-thrust reaction control system (RCS) using cold gas for orientation.


The New Shepard system launches vertically, ascends to suborbital altitudes over 100 km and performs a powered vertical landing for recovery and reuse of the vehicle. After a propulsive boost phase, the New Shepard vehicle will coast up to an apogee greater than 325,000 feet (over 100,000 meters), then return to the launch site. The entire flight will be nearly vertical.The New Shepard system launch, flight and landing activities take approximately 10 minutes.


Experiments will be hosted inside the Crew Capsule in standard Cabin Payload System (CPS) racks. Each rack supports a total of 10.6 cubic feet (over 300 liters) of available volume divided in standard Cabin Payload Bays (CPBs) of either 1.8 cubic feet (over 50 liters) or double-height 3.6 cubic feet (over 100 liters).

Each standard CPB will accommodate approximately 25 lbs (11.3 kg) of payload and the double-height CPB will accommodate approximately 50 lbs (22.7 kg). Blue Origin will consider payloads that are larger than the standard bay sizes, particularly for experiments seeking a high flight rate. A rack provided by an outside organization should not exceed approximately 260 lbs (120 kg) of carry-on mass.

Blue Origin anticipates that the Crew Capsule will experience 3 or more minutes of microgravity at a level less than 0.001 g during a typical flight.

The Crew Capsule will contain windows, allowing viewing of both Earth and space. Experiment racks could be positioned to optimize window access and field of view. Blue Origin is exploring the possibility of supporting externally-mounted experiments, such as sensors that can sample the atmosphere. These experiments will likely be constrained not to violate the outer mold line of the vehicle.


Blue Origin is currently working with several universities on a Phase 1 Research Flight Demonstration Program. The purpose of this program is to serve as a pathfinder, demonstrating the integration and operation of scientific experiments during unmanned test flights of the New Shepard system to high altitudes. The selected experiments are:

  • Three-Dimensional Critical Wetting Experiment in Microgravity. The principal investigator of this effort is Dr. Steven Collicott, of Purdue University.
  • Microgravity Experiment on Dust Environments in Astrophysics (MEDEA). The principal investigator of this effort is Dr. Joshua Colwell, of the University of Central Florida. The Southwest Research Institute is also contributing to this experiment.
  • Effective lnterfacial Tension lnduced Convection (EITIC). The principal investigator of this effort is Dr. John Pojman, of Louisiana State University. Professor Patrick Bunton of William Jewell College is also contributing to this experiment.


Flight testing of a prototype New Shepard system began in 2006. Blue Origin expects the first opportunities for experiments requiring an accompanying researcher astronaut to be available in 2012. Flight opportunities in 2011 may be available for autonomous or remotely-controlled experiments on an uncrewed flight test.

The flight rate would depend on market demand, but Blue Origin anticipates rates up to approximately 52 launches per year of the New Shepard vehicle.


The New Shepard flight program will be conducted from Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site (WTLS). WTLS is located in the remote desert of Culberson County, North of Van Horn, Texas, about a two hour drive from the El Paso airport. Launches and landings will both take place at Blue Origin’s WTLS facility.

Editor’s Note: The above information was compiled from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program website and Blue Origin’s public Request for Information (RFI) response for the CRuSR program. A shout out to Clark Lindsey of Hobby Space for originally finding the published information.