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Watch: Why Blue Origin is still launching lunar landing technology

Blue Origin successfully launched its 17th New Shepard suborbital spaceflight.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin launched its 17th New Shepard mission Thursday morning, sending a payload of experiments and an art installation on a sub-orbital trip from the space company’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

The uncrewed payload mission was the fourth flight for the reusable New Shepard rocket so far this year — including the July 20 flight that took Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to space.

It was a clean launch, with an easy landing made by both booster and capsule. This New Shepard mission also served as an opportunity to test technology that may prove to be crucial for future trips to the Moon — even though Blue Origin rival SpaceX is helping NASA get there first.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket lifts off from West Texas on August 26, 2021. Blue Origin

How did the launch go? — After two lengthy holds due to payload readiness issues, New Shephard finally lifted off at 10:31 a.m. EST, just more than an hour later than originally scheduled.

New Shepard lifts off from West Texas on August 26, 2021. Blue Origin

The vehicle reached the Karman line and crossed into space proper just four minutes later at 10:35 a.m. After separation, the crew capsule reached its highest point away from Earth’s surface at 10:36 a.m.

Capsule and rocket booster separation during the Blue Origin New Shepard flight of August 26, 2021. Blue Origin

The reusable New Shepard rocket booster fell quickly back to Earth, firing its rockets in the final moments of its flight to touch down softly on the concrete pad bearing the Blue Origin feather logo on a circular blue field at 10:39 a.m.

Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard booster touches down in West Texas on August 26, 2021. Blue Origin

The uncrewed crew capsule followed shortly after, swaying beneath red and blue parachutes in front of the West Texas hills before picking up the desert dust at 10:42 a.m.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard payload capsule drifts to Earth under its main parachutes in West Texas.Blue Origin

The total time elapsed from launch to space and back again was 10 minutes and 38 seconds.

What did Blue Origin launch?

The New Shephard capsule flew to a peak altitude of 347,430 feet while carrying 20 payloads. This included:

  • A biological imaging experiment put together by researchers at the University of Florida
  • Another experiment demonstrating a new technique for measuring spacecraft propellant levels
  • An art installation by the painter Amoako Boafo

But the premier payload on the flight was definitely the test of a lunar landing Deorbit, Descent and Landing (DDL) sensor, and a suite of related technologies developed by NASA and flown by Blue Origin.

First flown on New Shephard during an October 13, 2020 flight, the DDL sensor aids a lidar and landing computer system that helps determine a spacecraft’s speed and location as it approaches the lunar surface. According to Blue Origin, this technology will allow future lunar missions to land on more varied terrain than was possible during the Apollo missions.

The data collected from the 2020 flight is open source and available at data.nasa.gov. The data from Thursday's flight will eventually be added to the dataset as well.

“We got phenomenal data from the first flight and we have learned from it,” John Carson, principal investigator of NASA’s Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution, or SPLICE program, said during a pre-launch briefing hosted on the Blue Origin website. “It’s been very valuable data.”

Why is Blue Origin still launching New Shepard?

Now that Jeff Bezos has (possibly) earned his astronaut wings, why is Blue Origin still launching the suborbital New Shepard vehicle? And why work on flying lunar landing technologies when NASA has already awarded the lunar lander contract for its Artemis III moon mission to Blue Origin rival SpaceX?

There are several reasons to keep flying New Shepard, but the first is the simplest: Why wouldn’t they?

“The goal of New Shepard wasn't to fly Jeff Bezos to space,” Laura Seward Forczyk, the founder of space consulting firm Astralytical, tells Inverse. “It's operational space hardware so why not use it?”

Jeff Bezos voyaged via the Blue Origin New Shepard rocket in July. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Image

Foczyk says that Blue Origin’s CEO Bob Smith has said the company makes money from every flight. Since they have several contracts to fly payloads, “there’s no downside to flying,” she said.

“The great thing about the suborbital R&D market is that it’s diversified compared to tourism,” a Blue Origin company spokesperson, tells Inverse.

The company has federal, international, and private clients purchasing spots for their payloads, and many are repeat customers. “About half our customers currently are returning and our top users are coming back for their 8th or 10th payloads,” the spokesperson explains.

Many of the payloads for Thursday’s flight were paid for by NASA through the space agency’s NASA Flight Opportunities Program, while the lunar landing technology test was part of a NASA Tipping Point partnership — a way for the space agency to foster the development of promising technologies that could benefit both NASA and commercial space missions.

The Tipping Point partnership with Blue Origin dates back to 2018, Clare Skelly, a NASA spokesperson, tells Inverse. This was before the competition for the lunar lander, which is why it still makes sense for Blue Origin to be flying such a payload.

There’s also the fact that New Shepard is still a relatively new technology.

“Seventeen flights are still so few,” Forczyk says. “The more Blue Origin flies New Shepard, the more it learns to improve their technology for both suborbital and orbital spaceflight.”

What’s next — Speaking of orbital spaceflight, that’s another reason to keep launching New Shepard: New Glenn, Blue Origin’s orbital spacecraft, isn’t expected to fly until the final quarter of 2022, according to the Blue Origin spokesperson.

That said, there is value for NASA and other customers in suborbital flights, even when there are orbital launch vehicles available. During the preflight briefing, Carson noted that for testing things like lunar landing sensors, a suborbital flight is actually ideal.

“Before suborbital testing abilities were available to the community, the first time we did the types of integrated, system-level descent and landing testing was on the actual mission entry, descent, and landing,” he said. That’s a risky proposition for billion-dollar missions.

“The advent of suborbital vehicles enables us to combine systems together and test them in relevant conditions and ultimately retire the risk.”

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