Amazon Founder's Rocket Plans Take Flight as New Details, Images Emerge
Blue Origin's Goddard demonstration vehicle in mid-flight above its West Texas launch pad during a test launch on Nov. 13, 2006.
Credit: Blue Origin.

The secretive doings of the Blue Origin rocket team have become less guarded thanks to a first-hand account from the group's deep-pocketed backer: Jeff Bezos of fame and fortune.

The quest of Blue Origin rocketeers is to create a passenger-carrying suborbital rocket, dubbed the New Shepard.

For the first time, details of the team's first development flight in the New Shepard step-by-step project have been made available [launch video]. That test took place nearly two months ago, on the morning of November 13, 2006 - from their privately-owned West Texas space launch site in Culberson County, Texas [map].

Step by step

"We launched and landed Goddard - a first development vehicle in the New Shepard program," Bezos noted Jan. 2 on the Blue Origin website. "The launch was both useful and fun. Many friends and family came to watch the launch and support the team," he said.

The Goddard vertical takeoff and landing rocket reached a maximum altitude of roughly 285 feet (87 meters) on its first development flight [image]. The rocket lifted off and landed upon the same pad on a set of legs. The Goddard test hop was delayed a few days due to gusting winds in the area.

"We're working, patiently and step-by-step, to lower the cost of spaceflight so that many people can afford to go...and so that we humans can better continue exploring the solar system," Bezos reported. "Accomplishing this mission will take a long time, and we're working on it methodically. We believe in incremental improvement and in keeping investments at a pace that's sustainable."

Bezos explained that "slow and steady" is the way to achieve results.

That philosophy can be seen on the Goddard test rocket itself, imbued with the words: "Gradatim Ferociter" - Latin for step-by-step, by degrees and fiercely doing so with spirit.

"We do not kid ourselves into thinking this will get easier as we go along. Smaller, more frequent steps drive a faster rate of learning, help us maintain focus, and give each of us an opportunity to see our latest work fly sooner," Bezos said.

Reaction to the Bezos account of the Blue Origin success was provided to in a statement from Patti Grace Smith, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in Washington, D.C.

"Jeff Bezos and the Blue Origin team are on the cutting edge of the entrepreneurial world of private human spaceflight," Smith explained. "The FAA was pleased to approve and award the first-ever experimental permit to Blue Origin last September so they could begin vehicle testing."

Smith said that at the start of the New Year, "Blue Origin is taking its already excellent effort to another level. This is a hard working, gifted, safety conscious team and their development approach underscores the professionalism that characterizes the world of private space vehicle developers throughout the industry."

Technological tip-off?

No additional details from Blue Origin were immediately available on follow-on flights of the Goddard, or subsequent vehicles.

However, a tip-off as to things to come was voiced by Bezos in his soliciting of new company hires.

"We are particularly looking for experienced propulsion engineers and experienced turbomachinery engineers, as well as a senior leader to head our turbopump group. Folks with turbopump or propulsion experience on large, modern, cryogenic engines such as the RS-68 are of particular interest," Bezos explained.

The RS-68 is the largest liquid oxygen-liquid hydrogen booster in existence, capable of producing 650,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. It was built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for Boeing's Delta 4 rocket.

Another high priority, Bezos continued, is for an experienced leader for our structures team. "Structures experience on large, modern vehicles such as Delta IV or Atlas V is of particular interest," he added.

That interest in "large, modern, cryogenic engines" is a clue according to sources.

Cold facts: cryogenic speculation

Blue Origin has reported they are using hydrogen peroxide in the present vehicle - a monopropellant that's easy to start with, but does not yield great performance. But using hydrogen peroxide is clearly sufficient for an early prototype vehicle that is only flying up a few thousand feet.

Hydrogen peroxide is probably also easier to throttle - a key for up and down, legged-landing operations.

Speculation suggests that it is likely that Blue Origin rocketeers will have to transition to a bi-propellant combination in future vehicles. That will give them more performance, with hydrogen peroxide as the oxidizer and most likely some kind of refined kerosene as the fuel.

But neither propellant is a cryogenic.

The Bezos spotlighting of super-cold cryogenic engine technology involves a subset of requirements that are very distinct from those of non-cryogenic engines.

One theory is that Blue Origin might be reevaluating the decision to use hydrogen peroxide instead of liquid oxygen as the oxidizer. Switching to liquid oxygen would improve performance and have certain implications for ground operations.

New Shepard stats

Last year, Blue Origin turned in a draft environmental assessment (EA) for their West Texas launch site to the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation office.

In that document, the rocket group said the strategy is to build the New Shepard suborbital vehicle incrementally, starting with low-altitude tests, progressing to higher-altitude testing, and culminating with commercial flights. Early testing would use prototype vehicles that are smaller and/or less capable than the proposed final design.

Each new trial product would fly to higher altitudes and/or demonstrate additional subsystems than the previous prototype. Eventually, Blue Origin proposes to perform multiple flight tests of the actual operational New Shepard Reusable Launch Vehicle (RLV) system carrying Blue Origin personnel before commencing commercial operation.

As detailed in the EA, the New Shepard RLV system would be comprised of a propulsion module and a crew capsule capable of carrying three or more space flight participants on roundtrip treks from the ground to the edge of space. The crew capsule is perched on top of the propulsion module. The stacked vehicle would have a roughly nose cone shape with a base diameter of approximately 22 feet (7 meters) and a height of approximately 50 feet (15 meters).

Flight plan

Blue Origin explained in last year's EA that ten or fewer flight tests could be conducted in 2006, each to an altitude of approximately 2,000 feet (610 meters) for less than one minute.

In the 2007-2009 time period there would be continued flight testing of prototype vehicles with incrementally increasing capability. During these years, Blue Origin proposed to gradually expand the operational envelope of its vehicles, conducting 25 or fewer launches per year.

A wide range of tests were noted in the EA, ranging in altitude from under 2,000 feet (610 meters) to greater than 325,000 feet (99,060 meters), lasting one minute or less to over 10 minutes. Development tests of the crew capsule abort system would be conducted during this time frame.

In the 2010 and beyond slot, according to the EA, commercial operations could commence with the operational New Shepard vehicle. The flight rate would depend on market demand, but Blue Origin explained that they anticipated rates up to approximately 52 launches per year of the New Shepard RLV.