Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.
There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:
Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
CNBC reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans two more flight tests of the reusable New Shepard booster and capsule before flying people on suborbital flights. The additional tests could delay the first human flight into next year.
CEO Bob Smith has talked about the first crewed flight of New Shepard happening as early as the end of 2018 – but that goal has steadily been pushed back. Smith, in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, explained why Blue Origin has delayed the first crewed flight and continued to test.
“It’s really the robustness of our entire system. It’s not one individual thing that’s driving [these delays],” Smith said. “It’s us being cautious and thorough with the total systems we need to verify.”
He noted that Blue Origin has been pushing the limits of its software and hardware, as well as testing its BE-3 rocket engine for extreme and unexpected situations.
Blue Origin has filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to conduct the 12th New Shepard launch no earlier than Nov. 1.
New Shepard consists of a reusable booster and capsule. The capsule lands by parachute while the booster touches down using landing legs.
Blue Origin has recovered the capsules and boosters on 10 of the 11 flights. On one flight, the booster crashed while the capsule landed safely.
The company has not announced when it will begin to sell tickets and what price it will charge. Tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which expects to begin commercial suborbital flights next year, cost $250,000. Virgin Founder Richard Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight.
HUNTSVILLE, Ala., January 25, 2019 (Blue Origin PR) — Today we broke ground on the construction of a world-class rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama, extending the city’s rich legacy in liquid rocket engines.
Here are excerpts from today’s groundbreaking ceremony given by Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith:
It’s a great day here in Rocket City. Thanks to the votes of confidence from United Launch Alliance, from the Air Force for national security missions, and from Huntsville and the state of Alabama, we are breaking ground on a facility to produce our world-class engines and power the next generation of spaceflight.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith says the next New Shepard flight will occur soon, Space Newsreports.
The next New Shepard test flight should take place soon. “Hopefully in the next few weeks,” Smith said.
Blue Origin has been making updates to the vehicle, he said, intended primarily to improve operability rather than performance or reliability. Those upgrades took longer than expected, he said, hence the four-month gap since the last test flight.
Once the test flights resume, Smith said the company planned several flights to verify the vehicle’s performance before putting people on board. “What we want to do is get a series of flights, test out the incorporation of some of the changes that we’ve made, and then make sure we’ve got a stable configuration that we can repeat several times before we get to first human flight,” he said. That first crewed flight, he said, is expected by the end of the year.
Space News has an update on Blue Origin’s development of its BE-4 engine.
The chief executive of Blue Origin says he expects the company’s BE-4 engine to complete qualification testing by the end of the year as the company ramps up work on its New Glenn orbital rocket.
In an April 19 interview during the 34th Space Symposium here, Bob Smith said testing of the BE-4 engine, which uses methane and liquid oxygen propellants, was going well as the company stepped through a methodical process of increased durations and thrust levels.
“We continue to progress along the lines of changing the power levels and going from various throttle settings,” he said. That includes, he said, a test the company announced in March when the engine fired for 114 seconds at 65 percent of rated power. That duration is about half a typical mission duty cycle for the engine.
“We continue to roll through our test program and hope to qualify that engine by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re walking our way through that just to make sure we understand and characterize the engine fully.”