By Bob Brodbeck
Earlier today, Wednesday April 14, 2021, Blue Origin successfully completed the 15th flight of the New Shepard rocket and capsule system at its Launch Site One in West Texas, north of Van Horn. This test included Blue Origin employees as stand-in passenger astronauts rehearsing the ingress, or boarding, of the crew capsule and then, after the test flight, rehearsing the egress, or deboarding of the capsule. With the booster loaded with fuel for the flight, but shortly before launch, these stand-in astronauts exited the capsule after the boarding practice and did not fly aboard the capsule on the test flight. After the crew capsule had landed the stand-in astronauts again boarded and performed the passenger deboarding/egress steps with assistance from the ground crew. Thus this NS-15 test flight was the most passenger-integrated verification of the New Shepard system and operations made to date in preparation for the upcoming start of flights with paying space tourists.
NS-15 consisted of the NS-4 booster rocket with its LH/LO BE-3 engine and the RSS (Reusable SpaceShip) First Step passenger capsule, both on their second flights. While there are six passenger seats in the capsule, one of them was again occupied by the instrumented Mannequin Skywalker and another three seats were occupied by containers of children’s postcards from the Club for the Future. This left two seats for two employee stand-in astronauts to practice boarding, strapping in, and testing communications with control room capcom.
Launching at 11:51 CDT the crewless New Shepard achieved maximum ascent velocity of 2,234 mph (3,596 kph). After main engine cutoff (MECO), crew capsule separation from the booster took place at about T+2:40 into the flight and at about 240,000 ft. Continuing upward the crew capsule reached an apogee of 65.8 miles (105 km) above ground, exceeding the Kármán Line boundary of space of 62 miles or 100 km. Both the NS-4 booster and RSS First Step capsule returned to safe landings a couple of miles from the launch pad after the 10 minute 10 second test flight.
The full replay video at YouTube also includes informative segments on the development status of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rocket system and related facilities at Cape Canaveral and on the Blue Moon lunar Human Landing System. The NS-15 launch takes place at 1 hour 53 mins. into the video.
Today the Blue Origin personnel narrating the live stream repeatedly mentioned crewed flights will commence “soon.” Back in October, 2020, with the NS-13 test flight Blue Origin stated there will be “a couple more flights” before paying passengers are taken up on New Shepard. Will NS-16 be the first New Shepard flight with passengers now that the successful NS-14 (January, 2021) and NS-15 test flights have taken place? About three months have elapsed between each flight since NS-13 so perhaps NS-16 can be expected in July. And then perhaps NS-17 in October. So even if actual passenger trips to space on New Shepard are two flights away startup should happen this year.
In May suborbital space tourism competitor, Virgin Galactic, will resume powered test flights with its air-dropped VSS Unity space plane out of the new Spaceport America facility in New Mexico with at least a pilot and co-pilot on board. Passenger flights are expected after one or two more test flights.
So … it still appears 2021 will be the year for suborbital tourist flights to space will begin!
Image: Recovery team with stand-in employee astronauts preparing to rehearse exiting the RSS First Step capsule after landing.
Top image: Blue Origin employee and stand-in astronaut Audrey Powers strapped into a seat in the RSS First Step crew capsule as part of the boarding rehearsal.
Images courtesy Blue Origin.