Jeff Bezos' private spaceflight company Blue Origin may be trying to assure potential customers of the safety of a trip to space.
During a test flight of its New Shepard vehicle in June, the company intentionally disabled one of three parachutes that guide the crew capsule back to the ground following a trip to suborbital space. Today, in an email to subscribers of a company email newsletter, the company's CEO and founder, Jeff Bezos, said that the capsule came in slightly faster than it would have if all three chutes had deployed, but that the landing was otherwise fairly typical.
Besides the three parachutes, New Shepard is slowed in its descent by a retrorocket that fires just before the capsule hits the ground. Bezos' email also provided pictures of the "crushable ring" on the bottom of the capsule, which can help decelerate the craft if it hits the ground too fast (acting sort of like the bumper on a car). [Watch Blue Origin's Capsule Land With Only 2 Parachutes]
"Even with one chute out, the crushable barely crushed," wrote Bezos, who is also founder and CEO of Amazon.com. (The emails are not posted online, but signup is available on the company website.)
"When new, the crushable is about 5.5 inches [14 centimeters] high and can crush down to less than 1 inch [0.4 cm] high, providing a constant deceleration force as it crushes. After the mission, the crushable was still over 5 inches [12.7 cm] high along nearly the entire circumference of the ring," Bezos wrote.
During the June 19 test, the crew capsule descended toward the ground at 23 mph (37 km/h) before the retrorocket was fired, as opposed to 16 mph (25.7 km/h) which is typical when all three parachutes are functioning, Bezos wrote.
New Shepard is Blue Origin's suborbital vehicle, which includes a rocket and a capsule that will carry human passengers on suborbital flights — meaning the capsule never escapes Earth's gravity and must fall back down to the surface. These flights, lasting only a few hours, will take the capsule to an altitude where passengers can see the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness, according to company advertising materials.
Tickets will be made available to average citizens who wish to participate in one of these jaunts, which is an exciting prospect but also a scary one for many people. Spaceflight — even suborbital spaceflight — is dangerous, as was so vividly demonstrated on Oct. 31, 2014, when a pilot for the private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic was killed and another severely injured during a test flight of the company's suborbital spaceplane, SpaceShipTwo.
Blue Origin's representatives have also announced the company's intention to sell tickets aboard New Shepard to anyone who can afford the as-yet-unannounced price tag. (Unlike Virgin Galactic, it has not initiated any presale of such tickets.)
Blue Origin's June 19 test offered audiences a look at the safety of the crew capsule in the event of a parachute failure, and Bezos' email explored that point further.
"We’ve designed the capsule to ensure astronaut safety not just for a failure of one parachute, but even for a failure of two parachutes," he wrote. "In addition to the retrorocket system and the crushable ring, there is an energy-absorbing mechanism mounted underneath each seat."
The rocket portion of New Shepard is designed to be reusable, meaning it can land vertically after takeoff, and it can be used for more launches. So far, Blue Origin has reused one of its rockets in four successful test launches and landings. Bezos has said in interviews that he thinks rocket reusability is key to driving down the cost of spaceflight, and eventually having "millions of people" living and working in space.
Blue Origin is also working on an orbital rocket that will use the company's BE-4 engine. The veteran space launch provider United Launch Alliance has entered into a partnership with Blue Origin to use the engine in its next-generation rockets. ULA's current launch vehicles include the Atlas V rocket, which utilizes the Russian-made RD-180 engine.