Blue Origin rocket passes latest test, sets path for crewed space launches

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NS-15 lifts off!


CNET/Blue Origin video

Blue Origin, the private spaceflight company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, performed another test flight of its New Shepard rocket Wednesday, bringing it closer to flying humans to space in a very tangible way. The 15th launch of New Shepard, dubbed NS-15, started with humans inside the crew capsule, although none of them actually flew on the mission.

On Wednesday morning, Blue Origin went through the motions of driving astronaut stand-ins for the day from its training facility down to the launch pad. There they paused for a photo in front of New Shepard and then climbed the tower and loaded into the capsule. 

Audrey Powers, Blue Origin vice president for legal, and engineer Gary Lai, who is responsible for helping lead the design of New Shepard, climbed into the capsule, buckled in and performed a communications check with mission control. The hatch was closed but not latched, as after a few minutes everyone but a dummy named Mannequin Skywalker exited the capsule and departed the landing pad. 

Then a long wait ensued. A series of holds that appeared to be related to winds and other weather conditions delayed liftoff of NS-15 until flames finally emerged from the bottom end of the booster at 9:50 a.m. PT (11:50 a.m. PT).

New Shepard then blasted off to the edge of space as the company has successfully done 14 times already. The capsule separated from the rocket booster and continued to climb to a height of 66 miles (106 kilometers) while the booster came in for a successful vertical landing. A few minutes later, the capsule made a soft landing in the west Texas desert with the aid of parachutes. The whole process took just over 10 minutes.

Later, the designated astronauts for the day were set to again get inside the capsule and rehearse opening the hatch and exiting.

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Wednesday’s mission follows a successful launch and landing in January that included the latest version of the crew capsule, which is identical or at least very close to the one the company’s first paying customers will use.

During the pre-launch livestream, Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell provided a little more insight into what the New Shepard flight experience will be like for the company’s future paying customers. Those civilian astronauts will arrive at the company’s facility in west Texas three days before their flight. They will go through flight training and a dress rehearsal of the launch process before finally climbing into the capsule for the real thing. 

The highlight comes a few minutes after launch when the New Shepard capsule separates from the booster and continues to climb. At maximum altitude, passengers will experience three minutes of weightlessness before buckling back in and descending for a soft landing about two miles from the launch pad.

Five years into its testing program, it’s not clear when those first commercial flights will happen. The company is calling NS-15 a critical “verification step” prior to flying astronauts.

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