With a test crew set to climb aboard a Blue Origin rocket as early as next year, Jeff Bezos and his team know the system has to be as safe as it can possibly be when it takes that monumental step. Recent calamities suffered by other private space companies have certainly brought into sharp focus the huge challenges involved in such missions.
Billionaire Bezos, who founded e-commerce giant Amazon long before turning his attention to space travel, recently promised an upcoming Blue Origin mission like no other. Designed to help it evaluate the effectiveness of the crew capsule’s escape system, the crucial midair maneuver is also likely to result in the destruction of its New Shepard rocket.
The space company this week announced the mid-air test will take place on October 4 at 10.50 a.m. ET, with the whole operation shown live online on Blue Origin’s website.
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) September 29, 2016
The capsule can carry up to six people and is located atop the rocket booster, though for the upcoming test it’ll of course be empty. It’s hoped that in the next couple of years, Blue Origin’s reusable rocket system will be taking paying passengers to the edge of space, around 62 miles (100 km) above Earth’s surface.
In test missions up to now, the booster gently separates from the crew capsule before both parts return to Earth to be used again – a feat Blue Origin has so far achieved four times. But if something goes wrong during a manned mission as the rocket ascends, the capsule has to separate from the booster at high speed, taking the crew out of harms way. It’s this important procedure that will be tested on October 4.
“Our next flight is going to be dramatic, no matter how it ends,” Bezos said in an email this week, adding that the upcoming mission will be “our toughest yet.”
The escape system will be activated about 45 seconds after launch at an altitude of around 16,000 feet, with a rocket motor beneath the capsule firing for several seconds to take the capsule rapidly away from the booster. The capsule will then deploy its parachutes – as it has done on previous test trips – and float back to terra firma. At least, that’s the plan.
Bezos said that if the booster does somehow manage to survive its fifth mission, they’ll “reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum.”
However, Bezos knows that the force of the rocket’s separation from the capsule will probably cause it to slam into the ground instead. “In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered, and its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive,” the CEO wrote.
[This article was updated on September 30 by Trevor Mogg to include the precise time and date of the test. It was originally posted on September 8.]