Blue Origin, the aerospace company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, held its first-ever live webcast of a rocket launch on Sunday, sending the New Shepard rocket to the edge of space and back for a fourth time.
It also tested its passenger capsule’s ability to land safely in the event that one of its three parachutes doesn’t open (see: Apollo 15). There were no astronauts in the passenger capsule (which will one day hold six people on brief trips) during Sunday’s test launch, just experiment payloads (like this and this and this).
“I think you have no idea how badly I want to fly on this right now,” said Geoff Huntington, a Blue Origin flight sciences engineer and webcast co-host.
“It’s going to be an absolutely mind-blowing experience,” said Ariane Cornell, a business development executive at Blue Origin and the other co-host.
About 5,200 people were tuning in at 10 a.m. to the YouTube livestream when the webcast began. Some 35 minutes later, more than 15,000 people watched the rocket launch.
And about nine minutes later it was all over. The booster launched at 9:36 a.m. Central time and later separated from the capsule. The capsule reached the Karman line — the 100-kilometer/328,083-feet-from-earth boundary between the atmosphere and outer space — and came back down to earth a minute after the booster landed.
As cameras showed a marshmallow-shaped crew capsule float in a bright blue sky, Cornell and Huntington described how, if there were any people inside, they would be experience a free-fall sensation and have the opportunity to do mid-air somersaults.
Here are the stats (central time):
— 9:36 a.m. launch time
— Apogee of 331,501 feet
— 9:44 a.m. booster touch-down:
— 9:45 a.m. capsule touch-down:
The purpose of Sunday’s mission of the New Shepard rocket was to “execute additional maneuvers on both the crew capsule and the booster to increase our vehicle characterization and modeling accuracy,” Bezos announced in late May in an letter to Blue Origin email subscribers. “We also plan to stress the crew capsule by landing with an intentionally failed parachute, demonstrating our ability to safely handle that failure scenario.”
In that letter, he wrote “It promises to be an exciting demonstration.” And Blue Origin did not disappoint the people who tuned in.
The test flight signals another step toward the full democratization of space travel, because a reusable rocket is a cheap rocket.
“We’re talking about low thousands of dollars to refurbish this rocket between each flight,” Cornell said on the webcast.
“We can launch this 50 times for the same cost of doing one orbital launch,” she continued. “Today, most organizations, they are flying maybe 12 time a year? We can get so much more practice out of this suborbital program.”
But there’s another reason Blue Origin is spending time on suborbital instead of speeding into larger projects.
“At Blue, our philosophy is around our motto, which is, ‘Gradatim Ferociter.’ That means, ‘step by step ferociously.’ That’s precisely what we’re doing here with our suborbital program,” Cornell said. “We’re getting it down-pat on our suborbital program and we’re going to take those lessons and those designs and we’re going to roll it into our orbital program, which hopefully will be flying sometime by the end of the decade.”
Watch the full video again below:
Here’s a record of the previous four Blue Origin flight tests so far.
April 29, 2015: The rocket was not recovered but the capsule parachuted safely to ground.
November 23, 2015: The New Shepard rocket landed safely back on earth.
January 22, 2016: The same rocket went to space and back, landing safely for a second time.
April 2, 2016: For a third time, the same rocket goes to space and back.