December 09, 2013
Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin, the commercial space company bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, plans to begin unmanned orbital flight tests of its biconic-shape human capsule in 2018. Ultimately, the company will use an orbital launch vehicle powered at least in part by a clean-sheet cryogenic engine it now has demonstrated can support suborbital human spaceflight.
Initial flights of the seven-seat orbital human vehicle—so far known only as “Space Vehicle”—are scheduled to go on the Atlas V, which has also been the choice of other companies vying for a NASA contract to transport crews to the International Space Station. By then, Blue Origin also plans to have “astronaut passengers” flying suborbital missions in its New Shepard capsule as it builds toward a commercial operation that will provide suborbital and orbital human spaceflight to a variety of private and government customers, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other military organizations.
Longer term, though, Blue Origin expects to use a launcher of its own design for orbital human missions, with at least the upper stage powered by a variant of its BE-3 liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen rocket engine. The characteristically secretive Kent, Wash.-based startup unveiled new details about the BE-3 Dec. 3 in a rare and unusually informative question-and-answer session with Rob Meyerson, president and program manager. The 110,000-lb.-thrust rocket engine completed a mission-duty cycle test at Blue Origin's isolated West Texas facility, simulating operations during a manned suborbital flight of its New Shepard composite capsule.
In the test, the engine ran for 145 sec. at full throttle, then shut down for 4.5 min. to simulate the coasting phase that will take New Shepard out of the atmosphere. This was followed by a restart and throttle-down to the 25,000-lb.-thrust level it will need to bring the reusable booster back to Earth for a tail-down landing while the capsule parachutes home.
“We have been focused on the suborbital mission as the starting point to serve as practice for later development of our orbital launch system. That way, we intend to prove out underlying technologies while building out a very small and innovative company capable of repeated successes,” Meyerson says.
Work building up to the full-cycle BE-3 test in November was conducted over nine months and included 160 starts and 9,100 sec. of engine operation. “That equates to a test every two days, and sometimes actually three or four tests per day,” says Meyerson.
The work forms part of an unfunded extension of Blue Origin's Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev-2) contract with NASA, and builds on tests of the BE-3 thrust chamber conducted under an earlier funded phase of CCDev-2 at the space agency's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in 2012. Those tests “allowed us to accelerate the program by about one year,” he adds.