Jeff Bezos promised a dramatic flight test of Blue Origin’s new crew escape system in West Texas today, and the live-streamed event was even more epic than anticipated.
Not only did the crew capsule safely eject itself off of the New Shepard rocket, but the booster itself survived the maneuver, against all odds and expectations. NS2 managed to right itself after the escape, continue to travel all the way up into space, and descend back to Earth for a soft and upright landing.
The goal was only to recover the capsule and provide a gentle landing for its would-be astronauts, although crewed tests have yet to begin. On that measure, this test was a great success. If humans had been inside, they would have been in for a wild but ultimately safe ride up, and back down.
The escape system isn’t designed to be deployed except in cases where something goes wrong with the rocket, and so booster recovery isn’t part of the plan. When the capsule blasts off from the booster, it messes with the aerodynamics, and the Blue Origin team wasn’t at all sure the rocket would make it back in one piece after today’s test.
This was the final flight for history-making rocket NS2, which on November 23, 2015, became the first rocket to land in one piece after blasting to space, 100 kilometers up. It has since repeated the feat an additional five times, including today, proving beyond doubt the reusability of the system.
You can bet Bezos and the Blue Origin team are thrilled to have NS2 back on the ground safely, although both the rocket and the crew capsule won’t see space again. “We’d really like to retire it after this test and put it in a museum,” wrote Bezos in a blog post ahead of the launch.
This crew escape system is different from what has come before, on Mercury, Apollo, and Soyuz. Those systems had rockets that pulled the capsule like a tractor, and the escape system comprised a tower and motor between the rocket and the crew capsule that had to be jettisoned in every flight, emergency or not.
Blue Origin’s system has the crew capsule sit on top of the rocket, and to escape it fires its own rocket engine to quickly get away. The system is like an airbag — it can only be used once, but doesn’t need to be rebuilt after each launch if all goes according to plan.
And, if today’s launch is any indication, Blue Origin’s plans are moving along rather smoothly.
Watch the full in-flight escape test here: