Blue Origin / New Shepard
The wealthiest man on the planet Jeff Bezos lifted off on his own rocket and reached outer space on 20 July 2021, a key moment for a fledgling industry seeking to make the final frontier accessible to elite tourists. Blue Origin's first crewed mission, an 11-minute hop from west Texas to beyond the Karman line and back again, coincided with the 52nd anniversary of the first Moon landing. "It's dark up here," said barrier-breaking female aviator Wally Funk, one of the four crew along with Bezos, his brother and 18-year-old Dutchman Oliver Daemen, who will become the youngest astronaut. Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson made the voyage on July 11, narrowly beating the Amazon magnate in their battle of the billionaires. But Blue Origin's sights are set higher: both in the altitude to which its reusable New Shepard craft will ascend compared to Virgin's spaceplane, but also in its ambitions.
The New Shepard is a vertical take-off, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle that consists of a booster rocket and a crew capsule. It has been in development by Blue Origin since 2006, which was founded by Bezos to make commercial space tourism possible. New Shepard uses a BE-3 liquid hydrogen fuel rocket engine that provides 110,000lb of thrust (more than 1m horsepower) at full throttle after launch. When the rocket returns to Earth, it can reduce that thrust to just 20,000lbst, which enables it to make a vertical landing within a few feet of the target landing spot.
The New Shepard system is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle. The system consists of a pressurized capsule atop a booster. The combined vehicles launch vertically, accelerating for approximately two and a half minutes, before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates from the booster to coast quietly into space. After a few minutes of free fall, the booster performs an autonomously controlled rocket-powered vertical landing, while the capsule lands softly under parachutes, both ready to be used again.
The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet—offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for passengers to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.
The system consists of a pressurized capsule atop a booster. The combined vehicles launch vertically, accelerating for approximately two and a half minutes, before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates from the booster to coast quietly into space. After a few minutes of free fall, the booster performs an autonomously controlled rocket-powered vertical landing, while the capsule lands softly under parachutes, both ready to be used again. Reusability allows flying the system again and again. With each flight, engineers would continuously improve the affordability of space exploration and research.
From the time astronauts are secured in their seats until the capsule separates from the booster near apogee, escape is an option if needed. Drawing from the lessons of Mercury and Apollo, this is known as “full-envelope” escape. The New Shepard escape system is built around a solid rocket motor that provides 70,000 lb. of thrust in a two-second burn, so the capsule can quickly move away from any hazard.
As the rocket reenters the atmosphere, air flows through a ring at the top of the booster, passively moving the center of pressure to help control descent. Four wedge-shaped fins also deploy to further enhance aerodynamic stability. Descending at the speed of sound, the booster deploys eight large drag brakes, reducing the vehicle’s speed by half. Fins near the base of the booster pivot to stabilize the vehicle during ascent and steer it back to the landing pad on descent. Hydraulic actuators provide enough force to drive these fins through air speeds up to Mach 4.
The BE-3 engine that powers the New Shepard suborbital vehicle will be upgraded with a larger nozzle to operate in the vacuum of orbital space. The BE-3 is the first new liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket engine to be developed for production in America in over a decade. It’s been designed to withstand the extremely low temperatures of liquid hydrogen at -423°F and combustion temperatures nearing 6,000°F. At full throttle during launch, the BE-3 provides 110,000 lb. of thrust (over a million horsepower). When returning to Earth, it can throttle down to 20,000 lb.—a uniquely low throttle that enables a precise vertical landing, within mere feet of its target.
The BE-3 is the first tapoff engine to fly. In this simple rocket engine, where hot gasses from combustion are tapped from the main combustion chambers and fed back to spin the turbopumps in flight. Having only one combustion chamber with a single ignition event enhances reliability. om-made cryogenic turbopumps. The BE-3 engine uses a dual turbopump design that produces enough pressure to support a column of water over half a mile high. Just like the Space Shuttle’s main engines, the BE-3 uses liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as propellants. This combination is highly efficient and clean, producing water as the byproduct of combustion without any carbon emissions.
In addition to powering the New Shepard system to space with 110,000 pounds of thrust, the BE-3 liquid rocket engine is also designed to restart as the vehicle returns, slowing the booster to just 5 mph for landing.
Bezos' private space firm, Blue Origin, on 23 Novemer 2015 sent its unmanned New Shepard capsule nearly 333,000 feet, or about 62 miles, into the air – just above the internationally recognized boundary of space. The capsule landed under parachutes on the company's range in West Texas.
Musk's own rocket venture, SpaceX, had been trying to achieve a similar feat, but to date had been unable to land the spacecraft on a barge at sea. The difference between the New Shepard and the Falcon 9 is that the Falcon 9 went into orbit, rather than suborbital like the New Shepard.
On 24 November 2015, Bezos celebrated the achievement, tweeting: "The rarest of beasts — a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right" along with a link to a video of the takeoff and landing. Remarkably, it appears to be Bezos' first and, to date, only tweet. He has 39,000 followers, though, as of Wednesday evening.
Musk tweeted congratulations at first, but was unable to hold back. He sent out a few other tweets, including one that said: "Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013. Orbital water landing 2014. Orbital land landing next." VTOL is an acronym for vertical takeoff and landing.
New Shepard flew again on April 2, 2016 reaching an apogee of 339,178 feet or 103 kilometers. It was the third flight with the same hardware. We pushed the envelope on this flight, restarting the engine for the propulsive landing only 3,600 feet above the ground, requiring the BE-3 engine to start fast and ramp to high thrust fast.
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