Secretive Space Vehicle Tested at Private Texas Site
A flight test of the prototype "Goddard" vehicle at Blue Origin's launch site in West Texas.
Credit: Blue Origin

That secretive rocket work being bankrolled by billionaire Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com fame has shed some new light on its activities.

Blue Origin is developing New Shepard, a rocket-propelled vehicle that takes off and lands vertically and is designed to routinely fly multiple astronauts into suborbital space at competitive prices. ?

Flight tests of the suborbital craft have been staged at a private launch site in Texas.

Blue Origin is now noting that, in addition to providing the public with opportunities to experience spaceflight, New Shepard will also provide frequent opportunities for researchers to fly experiments into space and a microgravity environment.

To help shape this activity, the group has announced that interested parties should contact Blue Origin's independent representative for research and education missions, Alan Stern, the former NASA chief of space science.

These research and education missions are dubbed REM, oriented toward microgravity and space science investigations.

This activity would be in addition to, not in place of, Blue Origin's long-standing plans for human-carrying commercial flights. The first opportunities for autonomous or remotely controlled experiments on unpiloted flights could be as early as 2011 and the first ones requiring accompanying research astronauts would be available as early as 2012.

Coasting into space

In a mission overview, Blue Origin explains that the New Shepard vehicle will consist of a pressurized Crew Capsule (CC) carrying experiments and astronauts atop a Propulsion Module (PM).

Flights will take place from Blue Origin's own launch site, which is already operating in West Texas. New Shepard will take-off vertically and accelerate for approximately two and a half minutes before shutting off its rocket engines and coasting into space.

The vehicle will carry rocket motors enabling the Crew Capsule to escape from the PM in the event of a serious anomaly during launch. In space, the Crew Capsule will separate from the PM and the two will reenter and land separately for re-use.

The Crew Capsule will land softly under a parachute at the launch site. Astronauts and experiments will experience no more than a 6g acceleration and a 1.5g lateral acceleration during a typical flight. High-quality microgravity environments will be achieved for durations of three or more minutes, depending on the mission trajectory.

Call for investigators

Blue Origin is soliciting input from investigators to help design research astronaut and experiment accommodations. Researchers will have the opportunity to provide their own racks to mount into the vehicle (subject to a safety review), or use standard racks and services to mount their experiments.

Flight experiments may be autonomous, remotely operated, or operated manually by an accompanying researcher provided by the customer or by Blue Origin.

As for a timeline, Blue Origin notes that flight testing of prototype New Shepard vehicles began in 2006. The group expects the first opportunities for experiments requiring an accompanying researcher astronaut to be available in 2012. Flight opportunities in 2011 may be available for autonomous or remotely-controlled experiments on an unpiloted flight test.

Experiment listing

Preliminary accommodations and standard services Blue Origin anticipates will be available include:

  • Capacity — three or more positions to be used by astronauts or experiment racks
  • Experiment Mass Allocation — 120 kilograms available per position (including rack)
  • Windows — One per position
  • Data recording — Experiment data storage provided for post-flight download with synchronized trajectory parameter measurements

As for the kinds of experiments that could be flown, Blue Origin's website lists remote sensing, such as atmospheric science and Earth observations, sampling of the atmosphere and magnetospheric measurements. In-cabin science investigations are listed too, including physiology, gravitational biology or microgravity physics research.

Still under study is possible launching of deployable payloads from the New Shepard.

NASA interest

Blue Origin's interest in suborbital science, like other rocket firms, is being stoked by NASA creating a program office to explore this arena at the space agency's Ames Research Center.

That office is investigating the use of emerging commercial suborbital vehicles for scientific research, including, but not limited to, flights to space of researchers to allow for human-tended experiments.

By the way, a Human-Tended Suborbital Science Workshop is on tap next week at the Westin San Francisco Market Street. That Dec. 15 workshop is being held in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting and is sponsored by the Universities Space Research Association. 

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than four decades. He is past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.