Blue Origin’s New Shepard Space Rocket is Safe Once Again

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Space Rocket is Safe Once Again

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Nasa.gov/Candrea Thomas

Another Test Launch of New Shepard’s Escape Sequence

After a one-day delay due to weather, today marked the fifth time the New Shepard has returned safely to Earth from the edges of space. But it wasn’t expected to be this way.

Today’s test wasn’t just another run-through of lift-off and landing procedures. This was a test of the New Shepard’s entire escape sequence.

The commentators for today’s live webcast of the event were Ariane Cornell and Blue Origin engineer Phil Han. Although they remained steady, calm and collected throughout the show, there was a noticeable buildup of excitement in their voices that climaxed just before takeoff.

New Shepard and the Reusable Rocket

arstechnica.com/Eric Berger.
arstechnica.com/Eric Berger.

New Shepard is the first booster ever to return safely from above the Karman Line and maintain enough structural integrity to be reused after the adventure. (The Karman Line is the altitude where atmosphere stops and space begins.) The rocket has now repeated the trick four times since last November. All prior trips to space have been completed with boosters that are designed for single use. Rocket boosters are expensive tools to abandon. Companies such as Elon Musk’s Space-X and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are changing that with their focus on reusable boosters.

The whole point of building a reusable booster, according to Phil Han, is to cheapen the cost of space flight. Blue Origin is making space more accessible, and a significant part of this goal is adequate safety features. Herein lies the importance of today’s test: ensuring astronauts can return to Earth safely when there’s an emergency situation with the New Shepard booster.

The commentators likened the rocket’s safety feature to an airbag in an car. It’s a feature that will always be on the rocket, but only triggered and used in emergency situations.

Cornell and Han called these emergency situations “anomalies.” The rocket’s capsule is fitted with an automatic detection system that looks for these anomalies. When it finds a threat to the safety of its astronauts, the capsule’s Solid Rocket Motor (SRM for short) automatically fires, pushing the capsule away from the damaged booster to safety. If the booster’s about to blow, the astronauts got to go.

The Escape Capsule – New Shepard’s Demise?

Blue Origin’s crew triggered the escape sequence manually for today’s test. The engine in the escape capsule is powerful. The capsule’s engine generates 70,000 pounds of thrust and plenty of heat and exhaust. The motor is programmed to fire for about two seconds, according to a post written by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos on the company’s website.

blueorigin.com/Blue Origin. An earlier test of the capsule's rocket.
blueorigin.com/Blue Origin. An earlier test of the capsule’s rocket.

The SRM has only ever been tested blasting off from the ground. No one really knew how the New Shepherd booster was going to hold up when it was struck by the force of the capsule’s SRM. In fact, people all seemed to think the New Shepard was going to be destroyed.

Under normal procedures, there would be no reason to save the booster. This is because the capsule’s escape sequence is only initiated when a threat is detected. In theory, such a threat would mean the booster is already compromised.

For today’s launch to be successful, the capsule’s SRM had to fire, and the booster had to continue climbing against the thrust from the SRM. This all happened during a lovely stage of flight called Max Q. That is a smart person’s phrase for “a lot of moving parts under a lot of physical stress.”

To add to the difficulties, the booster loses its aerodynamic shape when the domed capsule leaves it behind. The booster’s own BE3 engine had to work hard to keep stable and upright as it fought through the capsule’s thrust. The next safety feature kicks in if the booster should fall into a dangerous trajectory. This final feature is called the Thrust Termination System, and it shuts down the BE3 engine on the booster. In such a case, the booster will simply fall down to Earth in whatever position it may.

Defying Expectations

wikipedia.org/Theo's Little Bot. Credit: Blue Origin
wikipedia.org/Theo’s Little Bot. Credit: Blue Origin

Bezos, in the same post mentioned earlier, wrote “the test will probably destroy the booster.” The commentators reiterated the same sentiment throughout the show. They did their best to steer the focus towards the escape capsule’s successful jettison and landing and away from the presumed demise of the booster. But let’s be honest: as horrible as it is to admit, no one watches NASCAR without secretly hoping for a crash.

Most of the articles written prior to today’s launch about the event mentioned an explosion or some variation of destruction, but the booster defied all. The launch was clean. The capsule ejected from the booster and landed softly in a pretty cloud of dust. Softly by space-flight standards, anyway.

New Shepard’s engine kept the booster upright through the thrust of the capsule’s SRM, and New Shepard remained stable all the way back to the ground after the capsule departed. At the very end, the landing procedures went off flawlessly. Phil couldn’t contain his excitement. He has been working on the booster for years, after all. It would have been understandably difficult to lose a project of this scale and longevity.

In fact, Phil’s genuine relief is the only hitch in the theory that Jeff Bezos might have softened the expectations of his audience. His post and the commentator’s focus on their near-complete lack of confidence in the survival of the booster going into today’s test is the reason people were expecting an explosion. Whether or not this was on purpose, Blue Origin looks all the better thanks to the exceeded expectations of the booster’s performance and durability. For those interested in watching it, the webcast is available on Blue Origin’s website.

Blue Origin paints turtles on the booster after each successful launch and safe landing. You’ve earned another turtle today, New Shepard. Gradatim ferociter.

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