(CN) – In a surprising stroke of luck, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin successfully tested its New Shepard rocket’s in-flight escape system and recovered the booster rocket completely intact.
While the purpose of the test was to determine whether the escape system would function properly in emergency scenarios, the team had presumed the rocket would not survive the procedure – its fifth launch.
But the rocket managed to survive the test, continuing into space before landing a couple of miles north of the launch pad in West Texas, charred but intact.
In an email posted to the Blue Origin blog in September, Bezos acknowledged the likelihood that the rocket would be destroyed during the test of the escape pod.
“We’d really like to retire it after this test and put it in a museum. Sadly, that’s not likely. This test will probably destroy the booster,” Bezos wrote.
The New Shepard system – named after Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut in space — is designed to be reusable to reduce launch costs. Bezos hopes the system will routinely carry up to six tourists or researchers, and potential experiments, on brief flights above the discernible atmosphere 62 miles above Earth at the boundary of deep space.
After separating from the booster, passengers will experience four to five minutes of weightlessness and witness a spectacular view of the planet’s curved limb through the largest windows ever designed for spaceflight before falling back to Earth.
During descent, passengers will experience up to 5 Gs of deceleration before three small drogue chutes deploy to stabilize the spacecraft. The three main chutes will then deploy and small retro rockets fire immediately before touchdown to reduce the landing velocity to just a few miles per hour.
The reusable booster is designed to release the capsule toward the apex of its trajectory before descending back to the launch site. The booster then reignites its engine for a powered vertical touchdown on deployed landing legs.
New Shepard launched smoothly and quickly accelerated as it consumed its propellants and shed weight. At an altitude of about 16,000 feet — 45 seconds after launch — the abort system was intentionally triggered to test the escape capsule.
It was the first abort test during an actual flight, designed to occur during the most dangerous portion of the trajectory when atmospheric pressure on the vehicle is at its maximum.
“We’ve already tested our pusher escape system, including many ground tests and a successful pad escape test, but this upcoming flight will be our toughest test yet,” Bezos wrote in the September email.
In-flight capsule escape testing was last done during the Apollo program. From 1964 to 1966, escape tests were done using expendable booster called the Little Joe II.
Wednesday’s escape test was done with the same reusable booster that has flown four times previously.
Photo: Blue Origin
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