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Blue Origin aces 'astronaut rehearsal' New Shepard test flight

Blue Origin has another clean test flight under its belt.

The company launched the 15th uncrewed test flight of its reusable suborbital vehicle New Shepard today (April 14), blasting off from a West Texas launchpad at 12:50 p.m. EDT (1650 GMT; 11:50 a.m. local time). Originally targeting launch at 11:15 a.m. EDT (1515 GMT; 10:15 a.m. local time), the flight was delayed about an hour and a half for final checks.

The mission, dubbed NS-15, was meant to mimic what will occur once Blue Origin starts flying passengers. Before the flight, two company employees entered the capsule to practice the procedures that future astronauts will follow before launch; the faux-astronauts left the vehicle for the flight proper, then returned to the capsule to practice post-landing procedures.

Today's mission "is really a critical step in our march towards first human flight," Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin's director of astronaut and orbital sales, said during the company's launch webcast. 

Video: Watch Blue Origin's New Shepard NS-15 flight launch (and land)!

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Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches the crew capsule RSS First Step on an uncrewed suborbital test flight from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas on April 14, 2021.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches the crew capsule RSS First Step on an uncrewed suborbital test flight from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas on April 14, 2021. (Image credit: Blue Origin)
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Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches the crew capsule RSS First Step on an uncrewed suborbital test flight from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas on April 14, 2021.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket launches the crew capsule RSS First Step on an uncrewed suborbital test flight from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas on April 14, 2021. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

During that webcast, Cornell and fellow launch commentator Patrick Zeitouni gave a virtual tour of the West Texas facility, which the company has named Launch Site One. The pad has astronaut quarters named after NASA's pioneering Mercury 7 spaceflyers and a lounge/gym called the Karman Line, the traditionally recognized boundary of outer space that lies 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth's surface.

Today's mission involved Blue Origin's first upgraded New Shepard vehicle, known as NS-4 or RSS First Step, which first flew in January. (RSS stands for Reusable Space Ship.) The upgrades made this particular capsule the first to boast features like temperature and acoustic control, display panels and a push-to-talk communication system.

Blue Origin's New Shepard booster approaches its landing zone after launching the NS-15 suborbital test flight of the company's RSS First Step capsule on April 14, 2021. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Both the New Shepard capsule and its rocket are reusable, and both landed smoothly within about 10 minutes of launch. During the flight, the capsule reached a peak altitude of 347,574 feet (105,941 meters) above ground level, according to a later statement released by Blue Origin.

In addition to testing astronaut procedures, today's flight carried Blue Origin's usual payloads: an instrument-laden dummy known as Mannequin Skywalker and more than 25,000 postcards submitted by students to the company's Club for the Future.

Blue Origin's RSS First Step crew capsule lands under parachutes in West Texas after launching on an uncrewed suborbital test flight from the company's nearby Launch Site One on April 14, 2021. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Zeitouni and Cornell announced during today's webcast that Blue Origin will donate Mannequin Skywalker, along with a New Shepard seat, to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, a museum that also hosts Space Camp.

"With Mannequin and the seat, I think we can tell a great story about that path to [human] flight," Zeitouni said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct a peak altitude listed during the live broadcast. Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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