Blue Origin, the notoriously-secretive space company, is launching its New Shepherd crew capsule this weekend. And, for the first time, you're going to be able to watch it happen — right up to a pretty probable crash-landing.
An earlier New Shepherd launch (Image: Blue Origin)
The plan is to launch New Shepherd using one of its new BE-4 rocket engines and begin some manoeuvring tests of the capsule. But, seven minutes into the flight, something alarming is going to take place: one of the capsule's parachutes is going to fail. On purpose.
Although New Shepherd is designed as a crew capsule, it will be empty on this run, which is an attempt to stress test the capsule. Like the old Apollo flights, New Shepherd uses a triple parachute combo to add drag to the capsule as it comes in for a touchdown.
New Shepherd's parachute system (Image: Blue Origin)
In 1971, Apollo 15's crew capsule experienced exactly the same parachute failure scenario, with one of the three failing to open as it splashed down into the Pacific Ocean. All the crew members inside were unharmed, but the capsule did go through what NASA described as a "hard impact".
Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos said in an emailed statement that he believes his capsule will be capable of "safely handling" a parachute failure and even a resulting crash-landing, thanks to a shock-absorbing crushable structure. The intention, though, is to use the capsule's "retro rocket" system — which kicks in when New Shepherd is just feet above the ground — to avoid the crash altogether.
"On this flight, we'll intentionally fail one string of parachutes on the capsule. There are three strings of chutes and two of the three should still deploy nominally and, along with our retrothrust system, safely land the capsule," said Bezos. "Works on paper, and this test is designed to validate that."
But, despite those measures, as he also tweeted this morning, "And of course — development test flight — anything can happen."
The New Shepard launch was originally supposed to take place today, but a leaky gasket in the capsule's nitrogen gas pressurization system grounded the capsule. The launch was instead pushed to Sunday morning.
The BE-4 rocket engine (Image: Blue Origin)
Previous Blue Origin launches have been heavily-shrouded from the public, with the launches often remaining secret until well after they had been successfully-completed. Competitor SpaceX used the opposite approach, releasing not just livecasts of all its launches — crashes and all — but also typically multiple views.
In just the last few months, Blue Origin has started to open up its process slightly, letting reporters into its facility for the first time. This, however, is the first launch that it will share with the public directly and not after the fact. And it's no coincidence that it's starting with a test of the New Shepard capsule.
Bezos has said that he wants to start operating space tourism flights within the next two years, by 2018. The New Shepard and the BE-4 engine that is launching it this weekend is exactly the same combination he's identified as the probable vehicle for those tourism goals, shuttling up flights of six tourists at a time to experience brief bouts of weightlessness.
As the time when Blue Origin is going to attempt to book customers draws closer, broadcasting what is — essentially — an abilities-showcase and a safety test for that capsule/engine combination makes sense. We'll be back on Sunday to see how it goes.