Blue Origin Company responsible for project of New Shepard launch vehicle announced about next test launch before end of 2015.
Blue Origin Company is one of less known in space industry. It was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, creator of Amazon.com. It is interesting convergence with SpaceX which was founded by Elon Musk also known of its contribution in developing internet market. Blue Origin from very beginning had clearly objective to put commercial market of launch services into higher level and offer more reliable and less expensive solution. To emphasize the determination for this purpose Company had chosen Latin motto: “Gradatim Ferociter” – “Step-by-Step, Ferociously”.
In opposition to SpaceX or Orbital ATK, main objective of Blue Origin seemed not so ambitious. The main aim was creating launch vehicle for sub-orbital spaceflights, but in the way that will make space travelling easier, cheaper and safer. Project begun and in 2006 first sub-scale technology demonstrator was ready for tests. It was called New Shepard, to celebrate American astronaut, Alan Shepard – oldest man on the moon and only man who play golf on moon surface ever (Shepard hit two golf balls during his mission). In the same time Blue Origin started to build own launch site and research facility near Van Horn in Texas. Also, New Shepard has been submitted to the NASA Commercial Crew Development Program. This gave effect immediately in the form of grant for Blue Origin at $3700000. Second test flight was in 2011 and unfortunately finished as a failure. But still, New Shepard showed its capability, and as development design remained in Commercial Crew Development Program finishing phase 1 in February 2011. To expand New Shepard contribution in the market, Blue Origin announced that their spacecraft will be submitted in NASA’s suborbital reusable launch vehicle (sRLV).
New Shepard was designed as vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL) reusable manned launch vehicle. New Shepard is controlled by onboard computers without any ground control. It is composed from two modules – pressurized capsule and propulsion module. Capsule is equipped with launch escape system providing ability of separation from rocket in every moment of ascent. Crew compartment is designed for six persons. It will provide comfortable flight conditions, with capacity of 15 cubic meters and with large windows (around 72 cm to 100 cm – record in spacecraft). Propulsion module is designed as fully reusable, powered with BE-3 engine. It is fueled with liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine designed by Blue Origin, with positively finished in 2015 acceptance testing. Engine is generating thrust at 490 kN. Remaining true to its premise, Blue Origin is also planning to simplify whole launch procedure. From the point of view of commercial astronaut, whole launch is possible to be finished in one weekend. Two days before launch astronauts will come to Blue Origin facility in Texas; next day will be filled with training. In the day 0, thirty minutes before launch astronauts will take their places in capsule. After launch, engines will work for 150 seconds and propulsion module will separate; capsule will fly into the space with momentum. Propulsion module will start to free falling to the Earth. It will be stabilized with fins and aerodynamic brakes. Before landing BE-3 will be started again to reduce speed. Additional skids will be deployed and rocket will land close to launch site. Capsule will reentry and fall with help of built-in thrusters for speed reducing. Three parachutes will help in safe return to Earth.
In spite of future success or failure of New Shepard, Blue Origin achieved noticeable position in space industry. Their engine, BE-3 was seriously taken under consideration as propulsion for upper stage (advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage – ACES) of next United Launch Alliance heavy rocket – Vulcan. Company announced ambition plans for the future. In 2015 they reveal concept of their orbital vehicle. It will be two stage launch vehicle with liquid fueled engines. First stage is planned to be equipped with BE-4 engine (with predicted thrust at 2400 kN) and is going to be fully reusable. Second stage will be powered by BE-3 engine. Announcement seems serious; on 15 September 2015 Jeff Bezos gave to public on press conference in Cape Canaveral, that Florida was designated as place for new research and test facility. In new test center Blue Origin is going to experiment and develop BE-4 engine and work on their new projects. Jeff Bezos had another reason to be satisfied during conference. ULA announced on 10 September, that BE-4 engine will be propulsion of reusable module of Vulcan rocket (with first launch scheduled on 2019).
It seems that SpaceX competitors are closing ranks – but it is sure that SpaceX will not make competitor’s life easy. On 2014 SpaceX challenged Blue Origin’s US Patent 8,678,321 and filed a petition seeking inter partes review of claims 1–13 of mentioned patent. All SpaceX claims were rejected as a result of subsequent proceedings; Patent office announced:
“After considering the Petition, we conclude that the challenged claims are not amenable to construction and we are unable to reach a determination on the reasonable likelihood that SpaceX would prevail on the ground asserted in the Petition.”
Blue Origin can still develop their launch system without the risk of expensive and time-consuming litigation with SpaceX. Let’s hope that in favorable conditions Blue Origin will show more interesting and innovative solutions.