‘Gradatim Ferociter’: Blue Origin tests New Shepard failure mode
Rising into the West Texas skies for the fourth time in seven months was Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard rocket and capsule. The goal of this uncrewed flight was to test a “failure mode” of the systems crew capsule’s parachute.
In a first for the secretive NewSpace company, the launch was streamed live on the Internet in a webcast. While the flight was put on hold for a few minutes due to the heat, it ultimately zipped off the pad at 9:36 a.m. CDT (14:36 GMT) June 19.
“Any day with a rocket landing is a fantastic day,” said Geoff Huntington, a flight sciences engineer at Blue Origin and webcast co-host.
Launch preparations started in the predawn hours at Blue Origin’s launch site. Rollout of the New Shepard from the Vertical Processing Facility—“the barn” as the company likes to call it—occurred at about 3 a.m. CDT (08:00 GMT). Using a semi-truck and a specialized trailer, the booster was taken to the launch pad 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, a trek that took about an hour.
Utilizing a Transporter Erector, the rocket was then lifted up and bolted to the launch pad.
“In order to have a very efficient launch, we just have a skeleton crew there,” Huntington said. “We want to be able to rapidly fly this rocket over and over again.”
Huntington said they built into the design features that keep it to where they won’t need very many people to prepare the vehicle for launch. He said one of those features was the inclusion of a mobile launch stand that is attached to the rocket. As the booster is rotated to vertical, it is reconnected to the rest of the launch pad.
“If we’re going to be sending millions of people to live and work in space, we’re going to need to keep the cost down,” said Ariane Cornell, a business development executive at Blue Origin and the other co-host for the webcast. “We’re talking about low thousands of dollars to refurbish this rocket between each flight.”
Over the course of the next several hours, a number of tests were conducted on the various features of the rocket, including the reaction control system, drag fins, landing gear deployment, etc.
After that, liquid hydrogen and oxygen were loaded into the booster’s tanks. Those propellants power the company’s BE-3 engine.
The BE-3 has a total thrust of 110,000 pounds-force (490 kilonewtons) and can be throttled down to as low as 25,000 pounds-force (110 kilonewtons)—allowing for a hover and slow descent in the final few seconds before landing.
In the final minutes before launch, the pad sounded like it was coming alive with all puffs and whirls of thruster tests and fin movement checks.
When the clock reached zero, the BE-3 engine roared to life. It took about seven seconds to reach full power before launch latches were released letting the New Shepard zip skyward.
Just over 50 seconds later, the vehicle experienced maximum dynamic pressure, also known as Max Q. About 10 seconds later, the vehicle broke the sound barrier as it continued to accelerate.
About two minutes and 18 seconds after engine ignition, the BE-3 shut down as expected. The booster was going Mach 3, over 2,100 mph (3,400 km/h). About 25 seconds later, the crew capsule separated.
The two vehicles reached a maximum altitude of 335,501 feet (102,251 meters) about 3.5 minutes after liftoff—officially reaching space, a boundary that is officially defined at 328,000 feet (100,000 meters). The capsule endured about four minutes of free-fall before beginning re-entry into the atmosphere.
On its way down, the crew capsule endured a peak gravity load of about five times that of normal gravity.
At about 9:44 a.m. CDT (14:44 GMT), the New Shepard rocket successfully touched down on the landing pad at 5 mph (8 km/h).
At the same time, on the crew capsule, two drogue parachutes deployed and pulled out two main parachutes as planned. Normally there are three, but this was a failure mode test to ensure that the vehicle can safely land in the event of a parachute failure.
A few feet (about a meter) above the ground, soft landing jets cushioned the capsule’s landing, much like what occurs during a Russian Soyuz landing. Capsule touchdown occurred just under 10 minutes after launch at 9:45 a.m. CDT (14:45 GMT).
Everything appeared to go well. The next step for the Blue Origin team will be to collect and analyze all the data.
The next flight of the New Shepard will test an in-flight abort mode for the crew capsule; when that occurs, only Blue Origin knows. The system is designed to ultimately carry people on suborbital trips to space. Right now, only experiments are being flown during these test flights.
Cornell said this is all part of Blue Origins philosophy: Gradatim Ferociter, which in Latin means “step by step ferociously”.
“That’s precisely what we’re doing here with our suborbital program,” Cornell said. “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.”
Video courtesy of Blue Origin
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity.