Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its New Shepard reusable suborbital spaceship — but for the first time, living, breathing humans practiced all the steps leading up to launch and following landing.
“This is as real as it can get without … sending them on a trip to space,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the countdown to liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.
Blue Origin also lifted the curtain higher for a sneak peek at its arrangements for future crewed spaceflights, including the layout for its astronaut village and the routine that paying customers will go through on launch day.
During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile, rising to a height beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line” that serves as the international boundary of outer space. The capsule’s maximum altitude was 347,574 feet (105 kilometers).
At the end of the trip, New Shepard’s booster touched down autonomously on its landing pad, while the uncrewed crew capsule landed with the aid of its parachutes and retro rockets.
“It’s just such a gentle landing right there,” Patrick Zeitouni, who leads Blue Origin’s advanced development program, said just after touchdown.
Blue Origin said the test mission, known as NS-15, was a success — but today, the focus was on the human factors that came into play before and after the 10-minute, 10-second flight.
Four Blue Origin employees rode an SUV out to the launch pad and walked up the seven flights of stairs to the top of the launch tower for today’s rehearsal. They were New Shepard designer Gary Lai; chief financial officer Susan Knapp; Audrey Powers, vice president of legal and compliance; and Clay Mowry, vice president for sales, marketing and customer experience.
Lai and Powers went further into the pre-launch plan, and were strapped into New Shepard’s seats by Kevin Sproge — who filled the role of launch pad guide, also known as “Crew Member 7.”
Once New Shepard begins commercial service, perhaps as early as this year, up to six crew members would be able to fill the capsule’s seats. But seating was limited for today’s test flight because Blue Origin was flying a sensor-laden test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker, plus payload lockers filled with more than 25,000 postcards that were sent in as part of Blue Origin’s Club for the Future nonprofit educational campaign.
After Lai and Powers strapped in and completed checking their communication links, the countdown went into a built-in hold, and the stand-in astronauts left the scene to watch the launch from a safe distance. They were due to return to the capsule after the landing to rehearse the egress procedure.
Blue Origin employees are expected to go on the first crewed flights, but eventually the company will take on passengers paying a six-figure ticket price. Cornell said spacefliers will arrive at Blue Origin’s “astronaut village” three days before their trip, and go through training sessions and simulations before they fly.
The village includes living quarters that are named after Mercury astronauts (Gus, Wally, Gordo and Deke) as well as women fliers who underwent NASA screening but never flew in space (Jerrie, Myrtle, Rhea). There’s also a lounge and fitness center dubbed “The Karman Line” and a dining hall nicknamed “The Rock House.”
Today’s test mission marked the second flight for this particular spaceship, christened RSS First Step. New Shepard components are built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and sent to Texas for launch.
Blue Origin also has a factory and a launch facility in Florida for an orbital-class rocket known as New Glenn, plus a factory in Alabama for its next-generation BE-4 engines. And as if that’s not enough, the company is leading a team that’s working on a lunar landing system for NASA’s use.