Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft scheduled for its next flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard Rocket Set to Return to Flight

After experiencing a failure during its last mission, Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket is scheduled to return to flight on December 18, 2023. The rocket will take off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas, with a launch window opening at 8:30 AM CST (14:30 UTC). This mission, known as NS-24, will carry 33 science and research payloads, as well as 38,000 postcards for Blue Origin’s Club for the Future foundation.

The failure of the previous mission, NS-23, occurred when the New Shepard’s BE-3PM engine nozzle suffered a thermo-structural failure. As a result, the capsule fired its launch abort system shortly after reaching Max-Q. However, the capsule safely escaped the booster and made a soft landing under its three main parachutes. Unfortunately, the booster, also known as Tail 3, was lost when it commanded the engine to be shut down during the Crew Capsule escape and crashed one kilometer east of the launch pad. This was the first failure of a New Shepard booster since the inaugural mission in 2015.

To investigate the failure, Blue Origin formed a Mishap Investigation Team (MIT) consisting of members from the company’s Safety & Mission Assurance organization. The team recovered all critical flight hardware from the launch site area and conducted tests on the BE-3PM engines immediately after the incident. The investigation revealed that the failure was caused by structural fatigue on the engine nozzle due to thermal damage and hot streaks resulting from increased operating temperatures. Changes made to the boundary layer cooling system of the engine led to higher nozzle heating and the formation of hot streaks. As a response, Blue Origin has been working on implementing corrective actions to improve the nozzle’s structure performance and combustion chamber operating parameters.

New Shepard, named after astronaut Alan Shepard, is Blue Origin’s reusable suborbital rocket system designed for both human spaceflight and research missions. Standing approximately 18 meters tall and 3.6 meters in diameter, the New Shepard vehicle consists of a Propulsion Module and a Crew Capsule. The Crew Capsule has the capability to support various mission types, including crewed, payload, and human-tended payload missions. In case of an in-flight abort, the capsule is equipped with a solid rocket motor to safely separate from the Propulsion Module.

On the day of launch, New Shepard will be transported in a horizontal configuration from the Vehicle Processing Facility to the launch pad, where it will be vertically erected for flight preparation. The payloads onboard will be powered on at T-500 seconds and prepared for flight. At T-0, the BE-3PM engine, fueled by liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX), will ignite, and the rocket will remain on the launch pad until T+7 seconds when it lifts off.

Around 128 seconds into the flight, New Shepard will experience Max-Q, during which the engine will throttle down to reduce the g-forces on the vehicle. At T+146 seconds, the engine will cut off as the rocket passes an altitude of 60 kilometers, followed by the separation of the Crew Capsule around 15 seconds later. The capsule will utilize its reaction control system (RCS) to stabilize itself after separation.

During a four-minute coasting phase, the capsule reaches an apogee of over 100 kilometers, providing approximately three minutes of microgravity for the payloads onboard. After reaching its peak altitude, both the booster and capsule begin their return to Earth by reentering the atmosphere. The propulsion module deploys wedge fins and drag brakes to stabilize and slow down the descent, while actuating fins guide the booster.

At seven minutes into the flight, the Propulsion Module initiates its landing burn by relighting the BE-3PM engine. It deploys four landing legs and performs a soft touchdown on the landing pad located 3.2 kilometers north of the launch pad. Approximately one minute later, the Crew Capsule deploys its drogue chutes to slow down its descent, followed by the deployment of the three main parachutes at around one kilometer in altitude.

The Crew Capsule descends gently under the main parachutes for about three minutes until it fires a retro-thrust system just before touching down in the designated primary landing area. Following a successful mission, Blue Origin recovers both the Propulsion Module and the Crew Capsule, returning the payloads to their respective customers.

The return to flight for Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket marks an important milestone for the company’s efforts in advancing commercial spaceflight and research. With its reusable design and ability to support various mission profiles, New Shepard continues to demonstrate its capability in providing access to suborbital space for scientific endeavors and beyond.