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Blue Origin wows AirVenture crowdsBlue Origin wows AirVenture crowds

What would you pay for an 11-minute experience that launches you into suborbital space for about four minutes of weightlessness and then a spirited descent through the atmosphere for a landing under canopy about two miles from where you took off in West Texas? The folks at Blue Origin hope your answer is “A lot!”

The company, owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, is working to deliver on that promise in the next one to two years. It isn’t saying yet what it might cost.

Attendees at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in July got the chance to gaze up at the 55-foot-tall BE-3 New Shepard rocket, a scorched veteran of five suborbital launches and now headed to a museum. Next to it, a shiny mockup of the crew capsule provided a glimpse of what space customers might experience on their intense, but short journey to an apogee of about 330,000 feet—100 kilometers, right at the Karman line of 62 miles that defines the edge of space. People lined up for hours at points during the show to sit in the six-passenger capsule, which includes large windows and reclining seats to help the travelers endure the 3G launch experience with peak pressures of up to 5Gs.

Photo by Thomas B. Haines.

During launch, the three engines in the New Shepard rocket generate some 110,000 pounds of thrust, fueled by liquid hydrogen. The booster is throttable between 20,000 and 110,000 lbst, according to Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales for Blue Origin. At about 75 km in altitude, the rocket releases from the capsule and returns to near its launch pad, landing vertically. A ring around the top of the rocket helps it stay vertical during the descent. At about 20,000 feet, drag brakes pop out of the side of the booster, cutting the descent rate in half. A massive burst of engine power at 3,600 feet further slows the descent as it touches down on crushable legs. The goal is to quickly inspect the engines and launch again in 24 hours. The plan is for the engines to last for 25 flights. The rocket itself should be good for about 100 launches.

Photo by Thomas B. Haines.

After separation from the booster, the capsule will continue its ascent. At apogee, the capsule will rotate slowly to give all aboard a great view of Earth and space through the six 1,000-square-inch windows.

During the capsule’s descent, parachutes deploy to ready it for a landing. Just above the surface, a blast of air slows it to a gentle landing. Should an emergency occur during ascent, a solid-rocket escape motor on the capsule can propel it away from the rocket for a safe return.

The New Shepard rocket has been successfully launched five times. The next flight with a new rocket will carry a capsule more reflective of the one that will carry passengers, including those massive windows to test their durability.

While passenger flights are about a year away, according to Cornell, work continues on the four-engine BE-4 New Glenn rocket, which is meant to carry payloads into orbit. New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard, the first American into space; New Glenn after John Glenn, the first American in orbit.

The building-block approach to more advanced flights reflects the company’s motto, the Latin phrase Gradatim Ferociter, step by step, ferociously. On the other hand, the company is taking a slow, methodical approach to passenger flights. The Shepard rocket has a turtle painted on it after each flight, a reminder that slow and sure wins the race.

EAA AirVenture attendees experience what it's like to be an astronaut inside the Blue Origin space capsule mockup on display at Boeing Square in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Photo by David Tulis.
Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines

Editor in Chief
AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.
Topics: EAA AirVenture

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