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.

  • Matt

    Eventually, private competition to both, VG/XCOR and SpaceX at once, in sight. I hope BO will be very successfull.

  • Dennis

    I wish they were just a little less secrative about everything. I mean, it is of course totally in their good right to be. Private business and all 😛 But meh, us space junkies just always want to see more rocket engines roaring I suppose…

    I admire the fact that they are taking this path towards developing their engines though, it is REALLY opposite of something like VG/Scaled making wild promises on when stuff will fly and then breaking those promises to make new ones. If BO ever want to compete for a piece of the pie I guess the proper path for them is to eventually come out with an ‘ironed out’ product, rather then hack something out and bugfix it along the way…

  • justchaz

    Better late than never. Bravo! …on staying a preset quiet and targeted course. Hydrogen throttling between 20 and 110K lbs will be impressive to watch maneuvered.

  • Boothby171

    “Sub Orbital.” These are parabolic flights; the vehicles do NOT achieve orbit, and cannot dock with the space station.

    Not that I can do any better, of course, but those astronauts they talk about carrying….they pick them up, they put them down.

  • Kapitalist

    Me too, I only care about deep spaceflight. But this blog has a focus on airplanes floating around in the atmosphere. It was my impression, and I hope it is partially true, that Blue Origin aimed at deep space.

  • Boothby171

    I hope so, too, but they repeat “sub-orbital” enough times in the article that I think they may be trying to tell us something….

  • mfck

    …to not overhype it? Not that we intended to, did we?

  • Boothby171

    I think it was really more of an under-hype.

  • Stuart

    Blue Origin must really have a difficult time picking the right time to write a press release with SpaceX, Nasa, ULA, ESA, Sierra Nevada, Boeing….etc crowding out the media waves with their incessant releases….

  • Saturn13

    The DARPA glide backs could use this engine and nice to be available. The capsule abort test used a A-R motor. I found a release from them. They call it a crew escape motor. This is the what I hoped SpaceX would use on DragonRider. I think it would have been low cost and fast done. Attach like Mercury. Outfit for crew using CRS. All set up for crew. Fill up with cargo. ISS remove cargo, crew turns on laptops. Checks out and does simulations with ground. Down cargo is loaded and Splash down. This would be the uncrewed flight. The crewed flights would load in the horizontal at the pad. Raise up and fuel. If any fire, the capsule would fire off. If a scrub, defuel and disembark. I regret it did not turn out that way.

  • Hug Doug

    I assume you’re talking about the XS-1 program? They don’t need to be glide-back, the only requirement is that they be rapidly reusable first stages.

    All indications are that the crew on the Dragon V2 will enter the spacecraft when the rocket is vertical and on the pad. This by far makes the most sense. I don’t know why you regret that?

  • Solartear

    Loading crew while horizontal would add risks to crew. The capsule cannot use its abort system while horizontal. Best to get the rocket and capsule vertical, then load the crew, then load the fuel/oxygen.

    The capsule design is hard to load/unload crew when it is horizontal, and would not save much money. It does seem like Dream Chaser would be easier to load while horizontal, but it too could not use abort system while horizontal.