Veil lifts slightly on Blue Origin rocket project

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For all the shake, rattle and roll that a rocket emits on takeoff, the secretive private rocket firm Blue Origin is still keeping quiet even as new details are emerging regarding its new vertical launch and landing rocket.

Bankrolled by the super-wealthy Jeff Bezos, founder of, Blue Origin has been busy fabricating its New Shepard rocket. The spacecraft has been shrouded in secrecy since work began, but Blue Origin officials lifted the veil slightly in recent weeks.

New Shepard is being built to eventually haul a crew of three or more astronauts to the suborbital heights, explained Gary Lai, the group's engineer/manager responsible for crew cabin development.

"If we're famous for anything . . . it's for being quiet," Lai told an audience of some 250 scientists, educators and suborbital rocket vehicle providers at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference held here this month. "One of the reasons is [that] it certainly keeps our marketing and public relations staff small," he said jokingly.

But Lai added that Blue Origin is steeped in a culture that will only give details after flight milestones are met. Regarding New Shepard, "the first time most of the public will see that vehicle is when it's in the air and is flying," he said.

Blue Origin broke its secrecy earlier this month as well, when the company received $3.7 million in NASA funds to develop an astronaut escape system and build a composite space capsule prototype for ground-based structural testing.

The company will develop a so-called "pusher" escape system for a spacecraft for NASA. The system places the escape rockets around the base of a capsule, rather than a tower mounted on the top like those used during NASA's Apollo and earlier spacecraft.

The award, part of a $50 million purse distributed among Blue Origin and four other commercial spaceflight efforts, is part of a NASA effort to support the development of commercial spacecraft.

The agency plans to use commercial spaceships, when they are available and deemed safe, to fly American astronauts after its three space shuttles are retired later this year. During the gap, astronauts will ride on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station.

Straight up, straight down
Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle is drawing upon three years of effort, Lai said, including several launches of its Goddard rocket — a first development vehicle in the New Shepard program. That Goddard craft first flew in November 2006.

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Goddard is "not necessarily what the operational New Shepard vehicle looks like," Lai noted.

The New Shepard will consist of a pressurized crew capsule mounted atop a propulsion module to hurl experiments and astronauts upward of 400,000 feet (120 kilometers).

Taking all of two and a half minutes to accelerate, the vehicle trajectory coasts the craft to the edge of space after shutting off its engines. In doing so, "high-quality" microgravity is promised in durations of three minutes or more.

New Shepard would depart from Blue Origin's already operational private spaceport in west Texas.

"The trajectory is nearly vertical . . . straight up, straight down," Lai told the audience. "We will reenter vertically and restart the engines and do a powered landing on the propulsion module."

In the event of an anomaly, the crew capsule can separate from the propulsion module and the two would reenter and land individually for re-use. The crew capsule is outfitted with a parachute to land softly at the launch site, Lai said.

Research and education market
Blue Origin has already begun soliciting investigator experiments to be flown on a no exchange of funds basis. Picked last September, a trio of scientific experiments represents part of a New Shepard flight demonstration program, Lai said.

"We recognize that, unlike space tourism, the research and education market is something that needs to be built up," Lai observed. "If there is a safe and affordable vehicle for personal spaceflight . . . people will come," he said.

To date, Blue Origin has spent about 18 months studying the research and education market. Organized scientific workshops around the nation have focused on fields like the life sciences, astronomy, the atmospheric sciences, education, and public outreach, Lai said.

"There are some things that these vehicles will be very good for. There are some things they will not be good for," Lai added. Sounding rockets, parabolic aircraft, high altitude balloons, as well as the International Space Station, he said, "will all have their place, in addition to next generation [suborbital] vehicles."

Mums the wordless
Despite the flicker of facts about Blue Origin and its future plans, Lai was still mum on several points.

Top on the list is how many test flights have already been performed by the Goddard vehicle. The November 2006 test — the only one publically announced — was unveiled in January 2007.

"I can't talk about our flight test program, other than what's already on the web. And I can't talk about schedule," Lai said. "But we have performed multiple flights with Goddard."

Blue Origin certainly did learn from those test flights, he said.

"The lessons we learned are the same lessons that everybody in the rocket industry has learned," Lai explained. "Rocket science is really hard. Design for operability is a big focus. We talk about it constantly."

But as for when New Shepard will make its maiden flight, that's still a closely guarded secret for Blue Origin.

"Not going to say anything," Lai said.