Blue Origin launch of tourism rocket will end nearly 2-year hiatus

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A Blue Origin New Shepard rocket launches from West Texas on March 31, 2022. The NS-20 mission marked the fourth crewed spaceflight for the company founded by Jeff Bezos.

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Blue Origin’s tourist rocket is set to launch passengers to the edge of space for the first time in nearly two years, ending a hiatus caused by the failure of an uncrewed test flight.

The New Shepard rocket and capsule are scheduled to blast off during a window that opens at 8:30 a.m. CT (9:30 a.m. ET) from Blue Origin’s facility at a private ranch in West Texas. A live stream of the mission, called NS-25, will begin around 7:50 a.m. CT (8:50 a.m. ET) on the Jeff Bezos-founded company’s website.

NS-25, Blue Origin’s seventh crewed flight to date, will carry six customers aboard the capsule: venture capitalist Mason Angel; Sylvain Chiron, founder of the French craft brewery Brasserie Mont-Blanc; software engineer and entrepreneur Kenneth L. Hess; Carol Schaller, retired accountant; aviator Gopi Thotakura; and Ed Dwight, a retired U.S. Air Force captain selected by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to be the nation’s first black astronaut candidate.

Although he trained at the Aerospace Research Pilot School and received an Air Force recommendation, Dwight ultimately did not join the NASA Astronaut Corps. He then became an entrepreneur and sculptor; a new National Geographic documentary about black astronauts, “The Space Race,” highlights Dwight’s pioneering story.

“I had no intention of becoming an astronaut. It was the last thing on my bucket list,” Dwight said in the documentary. “But once the challenge is launched, everything changes.”

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Ed Dwight attends a screening of the documentary “The Space Race” in January in Houston. At age 90, Dwight is headed to space more than 60 years after President John F. Kennedy selected him as the nation’s first black astronaut candidate.

Dwight will take on this challenge and reach the limits of space at the age of 90, making him the oldest person to venture to such heights, according to a Blue Origin spokesperson.

During the mission, the crew will soar at more than three times the speed of sound, or more than 2,000 miles per hour. The rocket will propel the capsule beyond the Kármán line, an area 100 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. widely recognized as the altitude at which outer space begins – but there are many gray areas.

And at the climax of the flight, passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and a breathtaking view of Earth through the cabin windows.

The launch follows the success of an uncrewed science mission in December – the first flight of the New Shepard program since the accident more than a year earlier.

A New Shepard rocket and spacecraft were scheduled to launch a batch of scientific instruments on September 12, 2022. But a minute into its flight, the rocket endured Max Q – an aerospace term that refers to a moment of maximum stress on a vehicle. This happens when the rocket is at a relatively low altitude – where the atmosphere is still quite thick – but the spacecraft is moving at high speeds, creating a moment of intense pressure on the vehicle.

At that moment, the rocket seemed to emit a huge burst of flames. The New Shepard capsule, which sits atop the rocket, then launched its launch abort system – triggering a small engine to move safely away from the malfunctioning rocket. This system worked as designed, parachuting the capsule to a safe landing.

Blue Origin later revealed that the cause of the failure was a problem with the engine’s nozzle, a large cone that directs flaming exhaust gases down the bottom of the rocket. On-board computers accurately detected the fault and shut down the engine, according to the company.

Blue origin

The NS-25 mission will carry a crew of six, including (from left) Sylvain Chiron, Kenneth L. Hess, Ed Dwight, Gopi Thotakura, Mason Angel and Carol Schaller.

No injuries were reported on the ground and Blue Origin said the science payloads and capsule were able to fly again.

But the rocket, left without a working engine, crashed into the ground. and was destroyed. Typically, after New Shepard launches, the rocket booster heads to a safe, vertical landing so it can fly again.

During a December interview with podcaster Lex Fridman, Bezos said the escape system that released the capsule to safety is the most difficult piece of engineering on the entire rocket — but “it’s the “That’s why I’m comfortable letting anyone go on New Shepard.”

“The (rocket) booster is as safe and reliable as possible,” Bezos added. “The power density is so enormous that it is impossible to be sure that nothing will go wrong. … So the only way to improve safety is to have an evacuation system.

“In my opinion, a passenger vehicle should be designed … to be as safe as possible,” he said. “You can’t make it perfectly safe. It’s impossible.”

Rocket repair and return to service

The Federal Aviation Administration, which authorizes commercial rocket launches and is responsible for ensuring public safety, oversaw an investigation into the failure. The investigation revealed that the engine nozzle failed because it experienced higher temperatures than the company had anticipated.

To fix the problem, Blue Origin said it made “design changes to the combustion chamber” – the area of ​​the engine where the fuel mixes explosively with the oxidizer – and adjusted the “operating parameters,” or the data the company uses to model safe flights.

“Additional design changes to the nozzle have improved structural performance under thermal and dynamic loads,” the company said in a March 2023 release.

The FAA officially concluded the accident investigation on September 27, 2023, outlining 21 “corrective actions” that Blue Origin needed to implement before resuming flight. The agency did not reveal details of these actions, noting that the report “contains proprietary data and U.S. export controls.” information and is not available for public release.

The changes and New Shephard’s successful flight in December have prompted the company to resume space travel for thrill-seekers.

Before the September 2022 failure, New Shepard rockets had completed 22 consecutive successful missions, six of which had passengers on board. Bezos flew aboard the rocket in 2021. Other notable space tourists previously carried by the vehicle include “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan.

CNN’s Madeline Holcombe contributed to this report.

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