Oct. 22, 2012 at 7:14 PM ET
Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket venture notched a blazing success last week when it tested a NASA-backed launch pad escape system for its crew capsule.
The Oct. 19 demonstration flight at Blue Origin's West Texas spaceport marked the final milestone for NASA's $22 million agreement with Blue Origin, which was aimed at promoting the development of next-generation spaceships capable of resupplying the International Space Station. Blue Origin, which is based in Kent, Wash., decided not to compete for the next phase of NASA's orbital program — but in a news release issued today, Bezos said his company would make use of the "pusher" pad escape system in its suborbital spaceship.
"The first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule is a big step on the way to safe, affordable space travel," he said. "This wouldn’t have been possible without NASA’s help, and the Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to design this system, build it, and pull off this test. Lots of smiles around here today. Gradatim Ferociter!"
That last phrase is Blue Origin's motto, which is Latin for "Step by Step, Courageously."
The latest step
The pad-escape test was the latest step in Bezos' decade-long effort to create a launch system suitable for space tourists as well as researchers and, eventually, orbit-bound astronauts. The 48-year-old Amazon.com founder, whose net worth is estimated at more than $23 billion, created Blue Origin in 2000 to follow through on his childhood dream of space travel.
"Blue Origin's goal is to work steadily toward developing human spaceflight capabilities," Brett Alexander, the company's director of business development and strategy, told me today. "Our goal is to lower the cost and increase the safety of human spaceflight to enable more people to fly."
Alexander said last week's pad-escape test in Texas and this month's successful test firing of Blue Origin's BE-3 liquid-hydrogen rocket engine at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi ranked among the biggest steps taken to date toward the company's goal. "This is a very big deal. ... Propulsion and crew escape are two of the fundamental building blocks of our system," Alexander said. "Those are the cornerstones, if you will."
Blue Origin is working toward the development of a New Shepard suborbital launch system with a propulsion module that can launch the crew capsule to an altitude beyond the 100-kilometer (62-mile) boundary of outer space. From that height, passengers can get a few minutes of weightlessness amid a view of the black sky above a curving Earth, while researchers can conduct useful experiments on the effects of the space environment.
Blue Origin hasn't laid out a specific schedule for commercial operations — nor has the company said anything about its pricing plan for spaceflights. But in order to be financially viable, the venture would probably have to be competitive with other suborbital spaceship companies, such as Space Adventures, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace. Those companies are offering flights in the range of $95,000 to $200,000 per seat.
Alexander said "the key to both safety and affordability is reusability of the launch vehicle and a lot of practice — a high flight rate."
The pad-escape test served as an end-to-end tryout for Blue Origin's crew capsule: A center-mounted solid-rocket engine from Aerojet lofted the capsule to a height of 2,307 feet (703 meters) under active thrust vector control. Then the capsule descended by parachute to a soft landing 1,630 feet (496 meters) downrange, at the company's test facility on ranchland owned by Bezos, near Van Horn, Texas.
Blue Origin showed the blastoff and landing in a video lasting a minute and 45 seconds.
Ed Mango, the manager of NASA's Commercial Crew Program, said in a space agency statement that "it was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight."
"The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight," Mango said.
In an actual flight scenario, the escape system would be lit up only if Blue Origin's propulsion module experienced a problem serious enough to abort the flight. The passengers inside the crew capsule would be rocketed away to safety. If the flight proceeded normally, the crew capsule would separate from the propulsion module, coast to the edge of space, re-enter the atmosphere and descend to a parachute landing. The propulsion module, meanwhile, would autonomously perform its own rocket-powered vertical landing.
In August 2011, a prototype propulsion module went supersonic and rose to an altitude of 45,000 feet during a test flight — but when the vehicle became unstable, the flight had to be aborted and the rocket ship crashed to its doom. That's the kind of scenario that would bring the pad-escape system into play.
Alexander said Blue Origin was still working on the next version of the propulsion module. The old version used five kerosene-fueled engines, but the next-generation propulsion module will use a single hydrogen-fueled engine, he said. "It'll look a little different, but it's essentially the same size," he said.
In the past, Blue Origin has been somewhat reticent to talk about its activities but in light of the past month's successes, Alexander seemed to emphasize the sentiment behind the company's motto: step by step, courageously.
"Our overall development path certainly doesn't stop with suborbital," he said.
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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.