Blue Origin ready for 15th New Shepard flight, critical test before carrying humans

Blue Origin is set to launch the 15th mission of their suborbital New Shepard launch system, including booster and capsule, on a test flight that will prove crucial to the company’s ability to begin carrying people. 

Liftoff is set to occur from Blue Origin’s west Texas facility near Van Horn within a window that opens at 11:15 EDT / 15:15 UTC on Wednesday, 14 April. 


After announcing the flight just days ago, Blue Origin revealed further information on the mission Tuesday, when the company said the flight would be a dress rehearsal for crew flights and would involve stand-in astronauts — who are in reality Blue Origin employees — for pre-launch and post-landing operations. 

The use of stand-in astronauts will allow technicians and launch personnel to practice loading people into the capsule on the launch pad and preparing the crew and capsule for flight.  They will also gain insight from the stand-in astronauts on the difficulty or ease with which they can climb the launch tower and ingress the vehicle and their seats.

In all, the stand-in astronauts will not just enter the crew capsule prior to liftoff but will also strap themselves into their seats with the help of ground support personnel and conduct communications checks with launch control teams.

After this, the ground team will then close and lock the hatch as if preparing for a flight. 

However, this will be an uncrewed test flight of the New Shepard system, and all of the stand-in astronauts will disembark the capsule prior to liftoff. 

Assuming a successful ascent and landing of the capsule, the same stand-in astronauts will then travel to the landing site and board the capsule again so that ground teams can practice removing people from the system wherever it should land. 

While this particular flight will not carry people, it will carry the now-famous Mannequin Skywalker stand-in for a human.  Mannequin Skywalker is outfitted with a suite of sensors to monitor the environment inside the capsule and on the human body during flight. 

Unlike some previous New Shepard missions which have carried science experiments as cargo, this is more of a crew flight exercise, and the only other items revealed by Blue Origin to be inside the capsule along with Mannequin Skywalker are 25,000 postcards on behalf of the company’s Club for the Future nonprofit.

To this end, the NS-15 mission is a crucial verification step in the sought-after goal of launching humans on suborbital tourism missions.

While a date for that first human flight as well as the cost of a ticket have not yet been released, clear and steady steps toward the endeavor have been seen in recent months — not just in test campaigns but in the language now being used by the company’s public affairs team.

Moreover, while space tourism is a driving factor of the New Shepard system, it must not be overlooked that the launcher and capsule have already greatly contributed to numerous scientific fields, flying experiments on previous suborbital missions for customers such as NASA, the US government, and various research institutions and universities.

One such test on NS-14’s booster evaluated lunar lander vision and navigation systems for NASA’s upcoming Artemis lunar program.

Additionally, Blue Origin was the first company in the world to achieve a successful retropropulsion, vertical landing of a rocket booster after it was used to send a New Shepard capsule to space (capsule reached 100.5 km) on 23 November 2015.

They were also the first commercial company to re-fly a previously-used rocket stage when the same New Shephard booster recovered on 23 November 2015 was used again just two months later on 22 January 2016.

New Shepard system

Overall, the New Shepard system is composed of a single-engine booster stage which propels a capsule capable of carrying a mix of humans and cargo, or either solely humans or solely cargo, on short, suborbital trips to space.

The internal volume of the capsule is 15 cubic meters — more than 10 times the volume of Alan Shepard’s Mercury capsule.

The NS3 booster landing at the end of its part of the NS-11 mission on 2 May 2019. (Credit: Blue Origin)

For human flights, large windows will provide unobstructed views of Earth.

The capsule is also outfitted with an escape system and can, within a fraction of a second, ignite that engine to push the capsule and payload (human or cargo)  safely away from the failing booster.

An In-Flight Abort test was successfully carried out in October 2016, demonstrating the system’s ability to protect people if needed. An additional In-Flight Abort test at high altitude was successful in July 2018.

Overall, the capsule is mounted atop an 18 meter tall booster propulsion stage that is itself powered by a single BE-3 engine which produces 489 kN of thrust (110,000 lbf) for 110 seconds while burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. 

With the propellant burned, the New Shepard system is one of the most environmentally friendly rocket systems currently in operation as the exhaust produced by the single engine is water vapor.

The entire system is designed to only require approximately 26 people on console in the mission control room for each launch and is completely reusable, with the New Shepard system achieving 10 booster reuses across 14 flights to date — with the second New Shepard booster becoming the first commercial booster to refly not twice but four times.

Flight history:

Flight # Date Booster stage Apogee
1 29 April 2015 NS1 Capsule: 93.5 km (suborbital by US definition, not by international standards)
2 23 November 2015 NS2 Capsule: 100.5 km
3 22 January 2016 NS2 Capsule: 101.6 km
4 2 April 2016 NS2 Capsule: 103.3 km
5 19 June 2016 NS2 Capsule: 101.0 km
6 5 October 2016 NS2 Booster: 93.7 km
Capsule: 7.09 km (In-Flight Abort test)
7 12 December 2017 NS3 Booster: 98.1 km

Capsule: 98.2 km (suborbital by US definition, not by international standards)

8 29 April 2018 NS3 Capsule: 107 km
9 18 July 2018 NS3 Capsule: 118.8 km (In-Flight Abort Test)
10 23 January 2019 NS3 Capsule: 106.9 km
11 2 May 2019 NS3 Capsule: 105 km
12 11 December 2019 NS3 Capsule: 104.5 km
13 13 October 2020 NS3 Capsule: 107 km
14 14 January 2021 NS4 Capsule: 105.8 km

(Lead image: Blue Origin)

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