Blue Origin Commercial Space Flight
Blue Origin, LLC is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and suborbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington. Founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the company is led by CEO Bob Smith and aims to make access to space cheaper and more reliable through reusable launch vehicles. 1)
Blue Origin is employing an incremental approach from suborbital to orbital flight, with each developmental step building on its prior work. The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, Latin for "Step by Step, Ferociously".
Blue Origin is developing a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. The company's name refers to the blue planet, Earth, as the point of origin.
Initially focused on suborbital spaceflight, the company has designed, built and flown multiple testbeds of its New Shepard vehicle at its facilities in Culberson County, Texas. Developmental test flights of the New Shepard, named after the first American in space Alan Shepard, began in April 2015, and flight testing is ongoing. Blue Origin has moved the date for first passengers back several times, with one recent planned timeframe being 2019 as of September 2018. In the event, it has not yet begun commercial passenger flights, nor announced a firm date for when they would begin. On nearly every one of the test flights since 2015, the uncrewed vehicle has reached a test altitude of more than 100 kilometers and achieved a top speed of more than Mach 3 (3,675 km/h), reaching space above the Karman line, with both the space capsule and its rocket booster successfully soft landing.
Blue Origin moved into the orbital spaceflight technology business in 2014, initially as a rocket engine supplier for others via a contractual agreement to build a new large rocket engine, the BE-4, for major US launch system operator United Launch Alliance (ULA). By 2015, Blue Origin had announced plans to also manufacture and fly its own orbital launch vehicle, known as the New Glenn, from the Florida Space Coast. BE-4 had been expected to complete engine qualification testing by late 2018, but the test program continued into 2019.
In May 2019, Jeff Bezos unveiled Blue Origin's vision for space and also plans for a moon lander known as "Blue Moon", set to be ready by 2024. On 30 April 2020, Blue Origin's National Team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, was awarded $579 million to develop an integrated human landing system as part of NASA's Artemis program to return humans to the Moon.
Figure 1: February 2, 2019: Blue Origin's mission: We are focused on developing infrastructure for the creation of human spaceflight capabilities. If we can build a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles, and lower the cost of access - we can enable a future of growth. We are building a road so your children can build the future (video credit: Blue Origin)
• June 12, 2021: A seat on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle sold for $28 million at an auction June 12. 2)
- The live auction wrapped up a bidding process that the company announced May 5 to sell the seat on the flight, scheduled for July 20 from the company’s West Texas test site. The process started with sealed bids, followed by an online bidding process that closed June 10. Qualified bidders then participated in the final live auction, where the high bid reached $28 million in about 10 minutes. The proceeds go to Club for the Future, an educational nonprofit organization affiliated with Blue Origin.
- The identity of the winning bidder was not immediately disclosed. The winner can fly on the New Shepard flight or designate another individual to go on the flight. Blue Origin’s Ariane Cornell said that the winner’s identity will be disclosed within a couple weeks, along with the fourth and final member of the crew.
- Interest in the auction grew after Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced June 7 that he will be on the flight along with his brother Mark. The high bid for the flight went from $2.8 million at the time Bezos announced his plans to $4.8 million when the online process closed June 10.
- The July 20 flight will be the first to carry people on New Shepard, which has flown 15 uncrewed test flights over several years. The most recent flight, April 14, was a dress rehearsal for crewed flights, with several Blue Origin employees playing the role of astronauts, testing getting into and out of the capsule during pre- and post-flight activities.
- Blue Origin’s major competitor in suborbital spaceflight, Virgin Galactic, flew its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, on its first trip to the edge of space in more than two years May 22. The vehicle, with two pilots on board, flew to an altitude of 89.2 kilometers before landing back at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
- Virgin Galactic previously discussed performing three more SpaceShipTwo test flights through the fall before going into a maintenance period, then starting full-scale commercial service in early 2022. The next flight was to carry four Virgin Galactic employees, along with two pilots, to test out the cabin interior.
- However, Parabolic Arc reported June 7 that the company is reportedly considering having its founder, Richard Branson, go on the next flight. He was scheduled to go on the second of the three flights, with the third being a commercial research and astronaut training flight for the Italian Air Force. Under that revised plan, Branson’s flight would take place around July 4, more than two weeks before Bezos goes to space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard.
- In a statement June 8, Virgin Galactic said it had not yet determined the date of its next SpaceShipTwo flight, but neither confirmed nor denied the report that Branson would be on that flight.
• June 7, 2021: Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man and founder of Blue Origin, announced June 7 that he will go on the first crewed flight of the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle next month. 3) 4)
- In an Instagram post, Bezos said that he, and his brother Mark, will go on the suborbital flight, scheduled for July 20 from Blue Origin’s West Texas test site.
- “I want to go on this flight because it’s a thing I wanted to do all my life. It’s an adventure. It’s a big deal for me,” Bezos says in the brief video.
- Blue Origin announced May 5 that, after years of development and more than a dozen uncrewed test flights, the company was finally ready to fly people on New Shepard. At the time, the company did not disclose who would fly on the vehicle, other than it would make one seat available to the winner of an auction.
- That online auction is ongoing, with a current high bid of $2.8 million. The auction is set to conclude June 12 with a live auction among qualified bidders.
Figure 2: Jeff Bezos announced June 7 he will fly on Blue Origin’s first crewed New Shepard flight in July, accompanied by his brother (image credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews)
• May 5, 2021: Blue Origin announced May 5 that it will fly people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle for the first time July 20, and will auction off one of the seats on that launch. 5)
- The company said that, after years of test flights without anyone on board, it will start flying people on New Shepard. The announcement took place 60 years to the day after the vehicle’s namesake, Alan Shepard, became the first American space on the suborbital Mercury 3 launch. The scheduled date of the flight is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.
- The company hinted during its most recent test flight of the vehicle April 14 that it was ready to start flying people on the vehicle. The company used the flight to test procedures for future crew flights, including having company personnel, playing the role of customers, boarding the vehicle during prelaunch preparations, and also practicing exiting the vehicle after landing.
- “We have flown this vehicle 15 times and, after the last flight, we said, ‘It’s time. Let’s put people on board,’” said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales at Blue Origin, in a call with reporters.
- The company did not disclose who would fly on the vehicle, capable of carrying six people, beyond that it will make one seat available to the public via an auction. The company will accept sealed bids through May 19, then go into an unsealed bidding phase, concluding in a live auction June 12. Blue Origin said the proceeds of the auction will go to an affiliated nonprofit organization, the Club for the Future, that supports STEM education activities.
Figure 3: The interior of the New Shepard crew capsule, which will carry people for the first time on a July 20 suborbital launch (image credit: Blue Origin)
- When Blue Origin announced April 29 that it would disclose its plans for selling the first seat on New Shepard, many expected it would formally unveil long-awaited plans to start selling tickets. The company has said little about its ticket sales strategy, including how much they would cost.
- Cornell declined to discuss how the company would sell tickets beyond this initial auction. “We don’t have details on the prices for future seats, and we will announce the details of how those future seats will be sold in the future, after this auction.” She added the company will take notes of the “most active bidders” in that auction for follow-up on future ticket sales.
- She also said that, after the July 20 flight, “we will have a couple more crewed flights before the end of the year.”
- While the company didn’t disclose details on ticket sales, the company is sharing more information on the spaceflight experience. Cornell said that those who fly on New Shepard will arrive at the company’s West Texas site four days before launch and undergo three days of training. That will include working in a mockup of the New Shepard crew capsule learning procedures for getting in and out of the vehicle as well as emergency protocols.
- Those who fly New Shepard have to meet a number of physical and other conditions, according to a terms and conditions document posted on the company’s website. That includes being at least 18 years old, weighing between 50 and 101 kg, being between 152 to 193 cm tall, and able to withstand 3g’s of acceleration during launch and 5.5g’s “for a few seconds” during reentry.
- Blue Origin didn’t disclose how many people signaled an interest in flying on New Shepard by signing up on its website in the last week to find out how they could buy tickets. “I can say that the website has gotten a workout in the last week,” Cornell said. “Obviously, we hope that is a good precursor to excitement and participation in the auction on June 12.”
- Loizos Heracleous, professor of strategy at the Warwick Business School, noted that there are about six million people worldwide with a net worth of at least $5 million, and thus likely in the addressable market for a flight like this.
- “For some it will be about bragging rights, for others it will be an experience of a lifetime,” he said in a statement about why people would be willing to pay a premium to fly on a suborbital vehicle. “In strict financial terms it might not seem a wise decision, but if it’s a small part of their disposable income or net worth, they might want to do it.”
• May 5, 2021: On July 20th, New Shepard will fly its first astronaut crew to space. We are offering one seat on this first flight to the winning bidder of Blue Origin’s online auction. Starting today, anyone can place an opening bid by going to BlueOrigin.com. 6)
Here are the three phases of the auction:
1) May 5-19: Sealed online bidding – you can bid any amount you want on the auction website (no bids are visible)
2) May 19: Unsealed online bidding – bidding becomes visible and participants must exceed the highest bid to continue in the auction
3) June 12: Live auction – the bidding concludes with a live online auction.
- The winning bid amount will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.
- On this day 60 years ago, Alan Shepard made history by becoming the first American to fly to space. In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere. They all say this experience changes them.
- We named our launch vehicle after Alan Shepard to honor his historic flight. New Shepard has flown 15 successful consecutive missions to space and back above the Kármán Line through a meticulous and incremental flight program to test its multiple redundant safety systems. Now, it’s time for astronauts to climb onboard.
- This seat will change how you see the world.
Figure 4: Your flight to space and back (image credit: Blue Origin)
Launch: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin aims to launch its first-ever crewed mission on a date already steeped in spaceflight history, and you can bid for a seat on that flight. The company is targeting July 20 for the debut astronaut launch of its New Shepard vehicle, which is designed to take people and scientific experiments on brief trips to suborbital space (Ref. 5). On that date in 1969, NASA's Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans ever to set foot on a world beyond Earth.
Flight test program
A multi-year program of flight tests was begun in 2015 and is continuing in 2018. By mid-2016, the test program was sufficiently advanced that Blue Origin has begun flying suborbital research payloads for universities and NASA. A few missions of the flight test program are listed.
• April 14, 2021: Blue Origin completed another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle April 14, putting the company on the verge of finally flying people. 7)
Figure 5: Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off April 14 from the company’s West Texas test site (image credit: Blue Origin webcast)
- Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle lifted off from the company’s West Texas test site, known as Launch Site One by the company, at 12:51 p.m. EDT. The capsule, separating from its booster after the powered phase of flight, reached a peak altitude of about 106 km before parachuting to a soft landing 10 and a half minutes after liftoff, three minutes after the booster made a powered landing.
- The flight profile for the mission, designated NS-15 by the company, closely followed previous test flights. The key differences for this flight were the activities before and after the flight, as the company tested procedures it will use for later crewed flights.
- About 45 minutes before liftoff, four Blue Origin employees playing the role of customers drove to the pad with other personnel, simulating the activities before an actual crewed flight. Two of them then boarded the capsule, strapping in and testing communications before exiting. They then left the launchpad and returned to mission control before the uncrewed vehicle launched.
- After the capsule landing, those personnel returned to the capsule, in this case to test the process astronauts will follow to exit the capsule at the end of the flight.
- Blue Origin used the webcast to provide some more information about its human spaceflight plans. Customers will arrive at the West Texas site three days before a mission for training, staying in facilities across a highway from the launch site.
- During training, and in final launch preparations, the six astronauts flying on a New Shepard mission will be accompanied by “CrewMember 7,” a Blue Origin employee. There will be two employees carrying that role, one accompanying the astronauts as they strap into the capsule and the other that will serve as a capcom, or capsule communicator, in mission control.
- The NS-14 flight carried no people, but instead the company’s “Mannequin Skywalker” anthropomorphic test device and more than 25,000 student postcards. Blue Origin noted in the webcast that it planned to donate Mannequin Skywalker after the end of the test program to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
- Exactly when that test program will end and commercial crewed flights will begin remain uncertain. The company offered no updates on its schedule for flying people, either company personnel or customers, during the event. It also did not discuss when it planned to start selling tickets or what price they will charge.
- Company officials, though, continued to hint that crewed missions will begin soon, albeit years behind original projections. “We’re getting so close to flying people here at Blue Origin. This is a very, very important step on our march to first human flight,” said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, during the company’s webcast of the NS-15 mission. “You can almost taste it.”
Figure 6: The New Shepard crew capsule lands in the West Texas desert after the NS-15 mission on April 14, 2021 (image credit: Blue Origin)
Figure 7: April 14, 2021: Blue Origin has been flight testing the New Shepard rocket and its redundant safety systems since 2012. The program has completed 15 consecutive successful missions, including three successful tests of the crew escape system, showing it can activate safely in any phase of flight (video credit: Blue Origin)
• December 17, 2018: Blue Origin plans to conduct the next test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle no earlier than Dec. 21 as the company moves closer to flying people into space. 8)
- In a statement Dec. 17, the company said the next New Shepard flight, designated NS-10, will take place Dec. 18 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern from its West Texas test site that has hosted all previous New Shepard tests. The flight, like several past flights, will be webcast. The statement came after the publication by the Federal Aviation Administration of restricted airspace around the company’s launch site for a three-day period starting Dec. 18.
- However, the company announced less than an hour before the scheduled launch that it was scrubbing the launch because of a “ground infrastructure issue.” The company said late Dec. 18 that, because of additional work needed on that issue, as well as weather, it has rescheduled the launch for no earlier than Dec. 21.
- The flight will be the first for New Shepard since a July 18 launch that tested the abort motor in the crew capsule. The motor fired shortly after the capsule separated from its propulsion module, with the capsule making a regular landing under parachutes while the propulsion module made a powered vertical landing.
- The NS-10 flight will use the same propulsion module and crew capsule as the July flight, but is intended to be a more standard suborbital spaceflight. The vehicle will be carrying nine experiments provided by NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, the company said. As with all previous flights, there will be no people on this New Shepard mission, but the company noted that the research payloads play a “role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space.” A second booster recently arrived at the site that the company says will be used for future crewed flights.
- The experiments on the flight are from a mix of universities, institutes and NASA centers. The payloads range from microgravity research payloads in fields like fluid dynamics and planetary science to technology demonstrations that will monitor conditions in the vehicle.
- This New Shepard flight comes less than a week after Virgin Galactic performed the first flight of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle to reach the edge of space. That flight carried four NASA Flight Opportunities payloads. Three of those payloads — a vibration isolation platform from Controlled Dynamics Inc., an experiment to map the behavior of dust particles on planetary surfaces from the University of Central Florida and a biological fluorescent imaging instrument from the University of Florida — are also flying on the New Shepard mission.
- That SpaceShipTwo flight Dec. 13 reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers, above the 50-mile (80.5 km) level where U.S. government agencies award altitude wings but below the 100-kilometer Karman Line often used as the boundary of space. That’s led to some debate about whether SpaceShipTwo actually flew to space.
- By contrast, most New Shepard test flights have flown to altitudes above 100 k, including 118.8 km on the latest flight thanks to the additional boost provided by the escape motor. The upcoming flight is also expected to exceed 100 km.
- Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are preparing to start flying people on their suborbital vehicles in 2019. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, confirmed in an interview after the latest SpaceShipTwo flight that he plans to be on the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight, which could take place after a handful of additional test flights. “Sometime next year, once the testing is finished, then I’ll do my flight,” he said.
- Virgin Galactic has about 700 customers who have paid at least a deposit on tickets that cost up to $250,000. Branson said that the company, which stopped selling tickets four years ago after a test flight accident destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo, would resume taking reservations again soon. That ticket price “will go up a bit,” Branson said, but decrease a few years later.
- Blue Origin has yet to start selling tickets for New Shepard flights, although one official said in June ticket sales could begin in 2019. Company executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, said earlier this year they hadn’t even decided yet on a ticket price for those flights, waiting until the vehicle is further along in its test program before doing so.
- “We continue to be head down on making sure the configuration is good and stable and ready to fly,” Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in an April interview on the status of New Shepard development. “Once we all feel confident that that’s the case, then we’ll have the conversation internally about what prices are and what that whole process looks like.”
- That process has taken longer than what company officials previously suggested. Speaking at a suborbital research conference in December 2017, Jeff Ashby, director of safety and mission assurance for Blue Origin, said the company was “roughly a year out from human flights, depending on how the test program goes.”
- “I’m hopeful it will happen in 2019,” Bezos said during an on-stage interview at the Wired25 conference in October when asked when Blue Origin would start flying people on New Shepard. “I was hopeful it would happen in 2018. I keep telling the team that it’s not a race. I want this to be the safest space vehicle in history.”
• April 30, 2015: Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time April 29 on a mission that took the vehicle to the edge of space, but failed to recover a part of the vehicle afterwards. 9)
- The company said that most elements of the vehicle, including its BE-3 main engine developed in-house, performed well. The crew capsule separated from the vehicle’s propulsion module and parachuted back to Earth. “Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return,” the company said.
- However, the company said it was unable to recover the propulsion module, which is designed to make a vertical landing using its main engine. “Unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent,” the company said, not going into greater detail about the problem.
- Blue Origin said it had been working to improve the module’s hydraulics system prior to the flight, and will incorporate those changes into future modules. “Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we’ll be ready to fly again soon,” the company said.
- The company, known for its secretive nature, did not announce the test flight in advance. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction in the airspace above Blue Origin’s Texas test site April 27 for “space flight operations” on April 29.
- FAA officials recently suggested that a test flight was upcoming. “They’ll be flying their reusable launch vehicle in the next couple of weeks. Watch the news for that,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in an April 21 presentation to the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here.
- The company did disclose in early April that it had completed development of its BE-3 engine, but offered no timetable for the test flights beyond starting them later this year.
- “We expect a series of dozens of flights over the extent of the test program,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said April 7 during a media teleconference about the BE-3. “We expect, over the next couple of years, to be flying regularly with the New Shepard vehicle.”
- lue Origin plans to eventually bring New Shepard into service, offering suborbital flights for space tourism and research applications. While the vehicle can be flown remotely, it is designed to carry three or more people to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers.
Figure 8: The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off on its first developmental test flight over Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site on April 29, 2015. The crew capsule reached an apogee at 93,600 meters before beginning its descent back to Earth (photo credit: Blue Origin)
• April 21, 2015: Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, will soon start flight tests of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official said April 21. 10)
- George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at a meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here April 21 that he expected Blue Origin to begin test flights in a “couple of weeks.”
- “They’ll be flying their reusable launch vehicle in the next couple of weeks. Watch the news for that,” Nield said. He did not provide additional details about those test plans, but praised the company’s “really professional, first-class organization.”
- Blue Origin already possesses an experimental permit from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that would allow it to carry out test flights. The permit was originally issued by the FAA in February 2014 and revised this February.
- The permit covers “an unlimited number of flights of the New Shepard System” from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, approximately 200 kilometers east of El Paso. A copy of the permit posted on the FAA website offers no technical details about the vehicle other than it has separate propulsion and crew modules, which the company has previously disclosed.
2) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin auctions New Shepard seat for $28 million,” SpaceNews, 12 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-auctions-new-shepard-seat-for-28-million/
3) Jeff Foust, ”Bezos to go on first crewed New Shepard flight,” SpaceNews, 7 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/bezos-to-go-on-first-crewed-new-shepard-flight/
4) ”Blue Origin announces that Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark will join the auction winner on New Shepard’s first human flight on July 20th,” Blue Origin, 7 June 2021, URL: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/jeff-bezos-first-human-flight
5) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin to fly first people on New Shepard in July,” SpaceNews, 5 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-to-fly-first-people-on-new-shepard-in-july/
6) ”Bid For the Very First Seat on New Shepard,” Blue Origin News, 5 May 2021: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/bid-for-the-very-first-seat-on-new-shepard
7) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin aces dress rehearsal for New Shepard crewed flights,” SpaceNews, 14 April, 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-aces-dress-rehearsal-for-new-shepard-crewed-flights/
8) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin gearing up for next New Shepard test flight,” SpaceNews, 17 December 2018, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-gearing-up-for-next-new-shepard-test-flight/
9) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin’s New Shepard Vehicle Makes First Test Flight,” SpaceNews, 30 April 2015, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origins-new-shepard-vehicle-makes-first-test-flight/
10) Jeff Foust, ”Blue Origin To Begin Test Flights Within Weeks,” SpaceNews, 21 April 2015, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-to-begin-test-flights-within-weeks/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).