A Closer Look at Blue Origin’s Expanded Testing in West Texas

Blue Origin’s pusher escape system rockets the New Shepard crew capsule away from the launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin’s pusher escape system rockets the New Shepard crew capsule away from the launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)

The FAA recently approved Blue Origin’s application to expand operations at its West Texas test site “to include new development vehicles, which would use liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants.”

The supplemental environmental assessment was required because of a shift in propellants used in flight tests. The FAA conducted an earlier review in 2006 when it originally approved the testing of reusable propulsion modules and crew capsules (CCs) at the site.

The Final Supplemental Environmental Assessment for the Blue Origin West Texas Launch Site is a fascinating in that it provides an insight into the vehicles and test operations of the notoriously secretive company.

What follows are excerpts from the report outlining key elements of the company’s future test plans.

Early Prototype New Shepard Vehicle. (Credit: Blue Origin)
Early Prototype New Shepard Vehicle. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Vehicles

Propulsion modules are expected to stand between 45 and 75 feet high and weigh between 20,000 and 30,000 pounds, carrying between 30,000 and 45,000 pounds of LOx and between 7,000 and 15,000 pounds of LH2. A propulsion module would use one or more engines that would produce a total thrust of up to approximately 300,000 pounds-force.

CCs are expected to stand between 8 and 20 feet high and would weigh between 8,000 and 12,000 pounds. A CC would carry between 600 and 650 pounds of hydroxylterminated polybutadiene (HTPB), a solid propellant. A CC would use one or more solid rocket motors that would produce a total thrust of up to approximately 120,000 pounds-force.

Differences Between the RLV Assessed in the 2006 EA and RLV Assessed in this Supplemental EA

RLV Assessed
in 2006 EA
RLV Assessed
in this Supplemental EA
Maximum Height50 feet95 feet
Propellants, Propulsion ModuleHTP and RPLOx and LH2
Propellants, Crew CapsuleHTPBHTPB
Maximum Thrust, Propulsion Module 230,000 pound-forcea300,000 pound-force
Maximum Thrust, Crew Capsule120,000 pound-force120,000 pound-force

a An RLV generated a maximum thrust of 135,000 pound-force when launched in 2011. This was less than what was analyzed in the 2006 EA. The 2006 EA analyzed launches with a maximum thrust of 435,000 pound-force, using the Taurus launch vehicle’s Castor-120 motors as a surrogate, and the EA also noted that Blue Origin’s launch vehicles were expected to have a thrust capability of approximately 230,000 pound-force.

Notes: HTP = high-test peroxide; HTPB = hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene; LH2 = liquid hydrogen; LOx = liquid oxygen; RP = rocket propellant

Launch Operations

The New Shepard Crew Capsule escaped to an altitude of 2,307 feet before deploying parachutes for a safe return. (Credit: Blue Origin)
The New Shepard Crew Capsule escaped to an altitude of 2,307 feet before deploying parachutes for a safe return. (Credit: Blue Origin)

RLV launch, flight, and landing activities would require less than an approximately 10 to 15 minute period to complete. The specific trajectory, thrust and duration is expected to vary from one flight to another, due to different atmospheric conditions and different flight objectives. In a flight to its highest altitude, the propulsion module would continue under thrust from its engine(s) until reaching approximately 200,000 feet; the duration of this propulsive flight phase would be approximately three minutes or less. The vehicle would then coast up to an apogee of approximately 350,000 feet. The propulsion module would then descend under gravity until the engine(s) is/are restarted to enable a powered landing on the Landing Pad; however, the vehicle would also be designed to land within a 4-mile radius of the Landing Pad.

The propulsion module may be flown either with or without the CC attached at liftoff. If the CC is attached at liftoff, the CC would land in one of two ways:

1. The CC may separate from the propulsion module during flight. During a nominal flight, this separation would be done using a combination of springs and possibly a low-impulse reaction control system (e.g., not using the solid rocket motor). In an off-nominal flight, the solid rocket motor on the CC may fire to more-quickly separate the CC from the propulsion module. In either scenario, the CC would land using parachutes within a 4-mile radius of the Landing Pad (North Pad).

2. Alternatively, the CC may remain attached to the propulsion module throughout flight, including during the PM’s landing operations. Although an experimental permit authorizes an unlimited number of launches, for purposes of this analysis, the FAA has assumed the following number of launches would occur as part of the Proposed Action.

Assumed Maximum Number of Annual Launches Under the Proposed Actiona

Year Propulsion ModulePropulsion Module + Crew CapsuleTotal
201441216
201523234
201623234
201725254
201825254
201925254
Total14232246

a This table provides maximum launch estimates for proposed launches that could require a license or permit from the FAA.

Amateur Launch Activities

The amateur launch vehicles would be expected to stand approximately 16 feet high with a one foot diameter. These vehicles would reach altitudes between 10,000 and 100,000 feet and would be launched between one and five times per year between 2014 and 2019. One version of the amateur launch vehicle would use liquid 90% hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) as a monopropellant and another version would use a solid rocket motor.

In addition, test flights of the CC being flown alone would fall under the category of amateur launches. These launches would involve firing the CC’s solid rocket motor at or near ground level, then the CC would land using parachutes within a 4-mile radius of the pad.

Assumed Maximum Number of Annual Amateur Launches

YearH2O2Amateur Launch VehicleSolid Rocket Motor Amateur Launch VehicleCrew Capsule AloneTotal
2014 21 2 5
2015 3 2 2 7
2016 3 2 2 7
2017 3 2 2 7
2018 3 2 2 7
2019 3 2 2 7
Total 17 11 12 40

Proposed Ground Operations

At Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, the BE-3 engine demonstrated a full simulated suborbital mission profile, igniting, throttling, and restarting on command. (Credit: NASA)
At Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, the BE-3 engine demonstrated a full simulated suborbital mission profile, igniting, throttling, and restarting on command. (Credit: NASA)

Ground testing activities that could occur at the site are detailed in Exhibit 2-7. Although these activities would not be covered under any experimental permits or launch licenses issued by the FAA, they are included in this analysis because they are connected to the permitted or licensed RLV launches. Additionally, ground operations contribute to the baseline or existing conditions (e.g., noise levels) at the launch site.

Possible Ground Testing Activities
at the Blue Origin West Texas Launch Site
Source: Blue Origin 2013c

ActivityDescriptionFrequency of Activity
Integrated ground tests of space vehicles and their componentsGround testing (also referred to as static testing) of vehicles, such as hot fire testing of propulsion systems.Test campaigns are expected at approximately 3 to 9 month intervals. Each campaign may involve one or several hot fire tests.
Vehicle Drop TestingDropping or lowering test articles and vehicles on a cable from a tower to the ground or some other surface, such as to test impact attenuation.Unknown
Pressure Vessel Testing Ground testing of ground support equipment and flight tanks and other pressure vessels, such as proof-pressure testing, over pressurization testing, materials-compatibility
testing, valve testing, and other ground testing. Pressurization testing will use some pressurant, such as water, nitrogen, helium or oxygen.
Unknown
Engine TestingGround testing (also referred to as static testing) of rocket engines using LOx, LH2 and hydrocarbon propellants.Several tests may occur each week.
Electronics Systems TestingGround testing of electronic systems for ground support equipment and vehicles.Unknown