Blue Origin to Begin New Shepard Flight Tests Later This Year

With touchdown 1,630 feet from the launch pad, Blue Origin completed a successful test of its Crew Capsule escape system. (Credit: Blue Origin)
With touchdown 1,630 feet from the launch pad, Blue Origin completed a successful test of its Crew Capsule escape system. (Credit: Blue Origin)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Blue Origin plans to begin flight tests of its reusable suborbital New Shepard vehicle later this year from its West Texas facility, President Rob Meyerson said today.

The company also announced that it had completed acceptance testing on the BE-3 hydrogen engine that will power the suborbital capsule. The company said the engine has been fired for more than 30,000 seconds during 450 tests.

Meyerson said the BE-3 is now available on the commercial market for other uses. The company also has plans to develop an upper-stage variant called the BE-3U.

The BE-3 engine is the first new hydrogen-powered rocket motor  to be developed in the United States in more than a decade. It is a reusable engine that can be throttled for powered vertical landings, Meyerson said.

New Shepard is a suborbital vehicle capable of flying three or more astronauts and scientific payloads. The booster stage takes off and lands vertically using the BE-3 engine. The New Shepard capsule lands under parachutes.

New Shepard  can be flown autonomously. Meyerson said the company will fly the vehicle dozens of times before putting test pilots aboard.

Blue Origin hopes to get dozens if not hundreds flights out of each New Shepard vehicle, allowing people to experience space travel. The company is using the suborbital flights as a test bed for an orbital crewed system.

Occupants will have about four minutes of weightlessness on a suborbital flight that will last less than 15 minutes, he added. New Shepard will fly above the Karman line of 100 km (62.1 miles), which is the internationally accepted boundary of space.

Blue Origin is still several years away from selling tickets for New Shepard suborbital flights, which will fly from the company’s West Texas location.

Meyerson also said Blue Origin’s larger BE-4 engine would begin full-scale tests in 2016, with plans to compete testing the following year. United Launch Alliance (ULA) plans to use the engine in the first stage of a new booster it is developing.

Congress has ordered ULA to end its dependence on Russian-built RD-180 engines for the Atlas V launch vehicle by 2019. Meyerson said the BE-4 will be ready at least two years prior to any U.S. alternative.

The company has been conducting sub-scale BE-4 tests involving the engine’s fuel injector and power pack, Meyerson said. Those tests have been on-going for months.

For its future orbital operations, Blue Origin has been looking at potential locations in several states, including Florida, he added.

The company also has continued a commercial crew agreement with NASA on an unfunded basis. Blue Origin has three additional milestones to complete.