Blue Origin aces in-flight escape test as it tries to show space tourists they'll be safe

Each of the four times the New Shepard rocket returned to earth after a launch, Blue Origin would add another tortoise image to the booster’s base. The turtle is a metaphor for the Jeff Bezos-backed company’s slow but steady progress in a new corporate space race bolstered by billionaires.

The New Shepard is the first in a family of rockets that Bezos, chief executive of Amazon.com, plans to use to ferry tourists into space, as early as two years from now.

Another milestone in that effort came Wednesday morning when Blue Origin successfully tested its in-flight escape system for the first time. A New Shepard blasted off from its pad in West Texas and, at 16,000 feet, an unmanned crew capsule fired its own solid rocket motor to separate. The capsule, which would carry space tourists away in the event of a launch disaster, floated via parachutes safely to the ground. 

The New Shepard rocket booster, which Blue Origin had expected to be destroyed by the force of the separation, survived to reach maximum altitude and fly back to Earth 7½ minutes later on its own power. 

After the launch, Bezos tweeted, “That is one hell of a booster.”

The New Shepard will hurl tourists, for a yet-to-be-determined price, above the atmosphere for a four-minute weighless experience. Last month, Blue Origin said it would incorporate what it learned from that booster into a much larger, orbital reusable rocket called the New Glenn, which is intended to take satellites and humans beyond low-Earth orbit.

Unlike fellow billionaire and SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, who last week laid out to great fanfare an ambitious plan to colonize Mars, Bezos has kept his ultimate goals close to the vest.

Blue Origin has teased a future rocket — the New Armstrong — which could hint at plans to send a launch vehicle to the moon. So far, all of Blue Origin’s launch vehicles have been named after the U.S. astronauts who first accomplished that feat. Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon.

“They’re very deliberate,” said Adam Bruckner, a professor in the department of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington. “They’re moving fast, but they’re taking their steps, and they’re not going to be upstaged by anybody in the sense that they’ll get there when they get there.”

The booster and capsule’s successful landing Wednesday helps validate Blue Origin’s technology, said Phil Smith, senior space analyst at aerospace consulting firm the Tauri Group.

“It’s definitely a proof of concept and good news,” he said. “They absolutely intend to launch human beings in New Shepard. This flight goes a long way to proving it’s safe.”

Analysts said the announcement of New Glenn indicates Blue Origin will probably take on SpaceX in the satellite launch market.

“New Shepard was really a different market than Falcon 9,” said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst with Forecast International, referring to SpaceX’s workhorse rocket. “But with New Glenn, it seems like they ... will be overlapping more and competing head-on.”

Bezos has said New Glenn will be 23 feet in diameter and will launch with 3.85 million pounds of thrust coming from seven BE-4 engines. Those engines, which will be powered by liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, also will be used in United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

The rocket will come in two variants — one with two-stages, 270 feet tall, and another with three stages, 313 feet tall. The larger version would be able to fly beyond low-Earth orbit.

These specifications would make New Glenn more powerful than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 but not quite as powerful as its Falcon Heavy, which will have more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

Hawthorne-based SpaceX is set to launch Falcon Heavy for the first time early next year. Bezos has said New Glenn will make its first flight “before the end of the decade.”

During the live webcast of Wednesday’s launch, announcers said tourists who buy tickets for New Shepard will get priority for riding on New Glenn.

In addition to commercial contracts, the size and power of New Glenn could mean that Blue Origin is angling for a piece of the lucrative national security launch market, analysts said. Currently, only SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., are certified to compete for launches of U.S. military and spy satellites. 

Blue Origin has experience working with the government. In 2010, the company was chosen by NASA’s commercial crew program to receive a total of $25.6 million for early developmental work on its launch abort system and spacecraft to potentially take cargo or crew to the International Space Station.

In June, Blue Origin also received a NASA contract to take technology and research payloads on a suborbital flight. Other firms under contract for that program include Virgin Galactic in Long Beach and launch firm Masten Space Systems in Mojave.

Blue Origin’s two-pronged approach of space tourism and satellite launches gives the company options for revenue generation, said Ostrove of Forecast International. 

“There’s more money in the satellite transportation market,” he said. “A lot of companies are starting to push more toward that and use that to generate cash and revenues before getting into this space tourism market, which is more exciting and possibly has a potential in the future but right now is not generating a lot of money.”

samantha.masunaga@latimes.com

For more business news, follow me @smasunaga

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UPDATES:

11 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from an analyst.

This article was originally published at 9:10 a.m.

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