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Veil Lifts Slightly on Secretive Blue Origin Rocket Project

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.
(Image: © Blue Origin.)

BOULDER, Colo. — For all the shake, rattle and roll that a rocket emits on takeoff, thesecretive private rocket firm Blue Origin is still keeping quiet even as newdetails are emerging regarding its new vertical launch and landing rocket.

Bankrolledby the super-wealthy Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, Blue Origin has been busyfabricating its New Shepard rocket. The spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecysince work began, but BlueOrigin officials lifted the veil slightly in recent weeks.

New Shepard is beingbuilt to eventually haul a crew of three or more astronauts to the suborbitalheights, explained Gary Lai, the group's engineer/manager responsiblefor crew cabin development.

"If we're famousfor anything . . . it's for being quiet," Lai told an audience of some 250scientists, educatorsand suborbital rocket vehicle providers at the Next-Generation SuborbitalResearchers Conference held here this month. "One of the reasons is [that]it certainly keeps our marketing and public relations staff small," hesaid jokingly.

But Lai added thatBlue Origin is steeped in a culture that will only give details after flightmilestones are met. Regarding New Shepard, "the first time most of thepublic will see that vehicle is when it's in the air and is flying," hesaid.

BlueOrigin broke its secrecy earlier this month as well, when the company received $3.7million in NASA funds to develop an astronaut escape system and build acomposite space capsule prototype for ground-based structural testing.

Thecompany will develop a so-called "pusher" escape system for aspacecraft for NASA. The system places the escape rockets around the base of acapsule, rather than a tower mounted on the top like those used during NASA'sApollo and earlier spacecraft.

Theaward, part of a $50 million purse distributed among Blue Origin and four othercommercial spaceflight efforts, is part of a NASA effort to support the developmentof commercialspacecraft.

Theagency plans to use commercial spaceships, when they are available and deemedsafe, to fly American astronauts after its three space shuttles are retiredlater this year. During the gap, astronauts will ride on Russian Soyuzspacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

Straight up, straightdown

Blue Origin's NewShepard vehicle is drawing upon three years of effort, Lai said, includingseveral launches of its Goddard rocket — a first development vehicle in the NewShepard program. That Goddard craft first flew in November 2006.

Goddard is "notnecessarily what the operational NewShepard vehicle looks like," Lai noted.

The New Shepard willconsist of a pressurized crew capsule mounted atop a propulsion module to hurl experimentsand astronauts upward of 400,000 feet (120 kilometers).

Taking all of two anda half minutes to accelerate, the vehicle trajectory coasts the craft to theedge of space after shutting off its engines. In doing so, "high-quality"microgravity is promised in durations of three minutes or more.

New Shepard woulddepart from Blue Origin's already operational private spaceport in west Texas.

"The trajectoryis nearly vertical . . . straight up, straight down," Lai told the audience. "Wewill reenter vertically and restart the engines and do a powered landing on thepropulsion module."

In the event of an anomaly,the crew capsule can separate from the propulsion module and the two wouldreenter and land individually for re-use. The crew capsule is outfitted with aparachute to land softly at the launch site, Lai said.

Research andeducation market

Blue Origin hasalready begun soliciting investigator experiments to be flown on a no exchangeof funds basis. Picked last September, a trio ofscientific experiments represents part of a New Shepard flightdemonstration program, Lai said. ?

"We recognizethat, unlike space tourism, the research and education market is something thatneeds to be built up," Lai observed. "If there is a safe andaffordable vehicle for personal spaceflight . . . people will come," he said.

To date, Blue Originhas spent about 18 months studying the research and education market. Organizedscientific workshops around the nation have focused on fields like the lifesciences, astronomy, the atmospheric sciences, education, and public outreach, Laisaid.

"There are somethings that these vehicles will be very good for. There are some things theywill not be good for," Lai added. Sounding rockets, parabolic aircraft,high altitude balloons, as well as the International Space Station, he said, "willall have their place, in addition to next generation [suborbital] vehicles."

Mums the wordless

Despite the flickerof facts about Blue Origin and its future plans, Lai was still mum on severalpoints.

Top on the list ishow many test flights have already been performed by the Goddard vehicle. TheNovember 2006 test — the only one publically announced — was unveiled inJanuary 2007.

"I can't talkabout our flight test program, other than what's already on the web. And I can'ttalk about schedule," Lai said. "But we have performed multipleflights with Goddard."

Blue Origin certainlydid learn from those test flights, he said.

"The lessons welearned are the same lessons that everybody in the rocketindustry has learned," Lai explained. "Rocket science is reallyhard. Design for operability is a big focus. We talk about it constantly."

But as for when NewShepard will make its maiden flight, that's still a closely guarded secret forBlue Origin.

"Not going tosay anything," Lai said.

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