After sitting out a one-day delay due to weather conditions in West Texas, Blue Origin conducted a much anticipated in-flight abort test of its New Shepard rocket and capsule this morning, stunning the aerospace world with a successful recovery of both elements.
The capsule recovery, which was after all the point of the test, came about almost exactly as intended, with the 70,000 lb, thrust center-mounted solid rocket motor blasting the capsule free of the booster 44 seconds into the flight, timed to coincide with the moment of maximum dynamic pressure. Following a slightly wobbly trajectory that took it immediately clear of the booster’s flight path, the capsule then assumed what appeared to be a normal descent profile, first deploying its three drogue parachutes, followed by three reefed mains which ultimately expanded to bring the capsule in for a landing cushioned by small retro-rockets.
Had this been an actual flight with passengers aboard, they would have been quite alright, and might not have even spilled their coffee.
The real joy came with the history-making New Shepard rocket, which after four successful flights, and a few brief holds throughout the course of the countdown, lifted off into cobalt blue skies dutifully consigned to a fate described as near certain destruction. Perhaps there was a bit of sandbagging going on here, but who really cares?
Rather than careening badly off course as the 8,000 lb. capsule was blown off its body, the booster barley seemed to notice, continuing on its path to space with the BE-3 engine’s thrust throttled down to prevent over-acceleration of its now considerably lightened mass. Had it instead strayed from the course, the engine would have been shut off entirely, allowing the rocket to crash unceremoniously to the desert floor. Instead, it is headed to a museum after having taken a bit of a victory dash into suborbital space and then settling back down for a fifth and final landing.
With today’s twin accomplishments, Blue Origin has now scored a red letter date in space history, having not only conducted the first in-flight abort test since the Apollo era, but also in setting the stage to move into a new era of its own. With its preliminary testing out of the way, Blue is now moving on to a new rocket, a new capsule, the start of the final countdown towards sub-orbital space tourism.
It should also be noted that of the four American organizations working on capsule based spaceflight; Blue Origin, SpaceX, Boeing and NASA, it is the one with least direct oversight which has recorded an in-flight abort test first, and it came on a booster which almost exactly models that which will be used during passenger flights.
Of the three, SpaceX is the next in line and will reportedly use a modified version of the Falcon 9 for a Dragon escape test, whereas NASA will be conducting an Altitude Abort Test for the Orion capsule using a single stage solid rocket, now scheduled for 2019. Really standing apart, Boeing is not conducting an in-flight abort test of any sort for its Dreamliner Commercial Crew capsule.