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October 22, 2012

Blue Origin Makes Progress towards Manned Suborbital - Orbital Launch Systems

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Secretive Blue Origin continues to demonstrate key hardware pieces in its quest to build manned suborbital and orbital launch systems. Its latest announcements in the past two weeks include a successful pad escape test at its West Texas launch site and chamber testing of components for its 100,000 pound liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen rocket engine.

Conducted last week and with some nice video here, Blue Origin used a full-scale suborbital crew capsule to test its pad escape system, launching it from a simulated propulsion module. The pusher escape motor took the crew capsule to 2,307 feet using active thrust vector control before deploying parachutes for a soft landing 1,630 feet down range.

Blue Origin's pusher escape system has been designed and developed to allow full-envelope crew escape in case of an ascent emergency on its suborbital New Shepard system. The results of the test will be utilized in the design of Blue Origin's seven-person orbital space vehicle, a bi-conic capsule design.

“The first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule is a big step on the way to safe, affordable space travel,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin. “This wouldn’t have been possible without NASA’s help, and the Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to design this system, build it, and pull off this test. Lots of smiles around here today. Gradatim Ferociter!”

Pusher escape systems are relatively new, with Boeing (News - Alert), SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada all using variants of the concept for their respective offerings in NASA's Commercial Crew Program to foster development of U.S. commercial manned space systems to low earth orbit. A pusher system is designed to be reusable, and can be applied to in-orbit maneuvering and soft landing operations after re-entry as well. Previously manned escape systems used from Mercury through Apollo used "pull" rockets to separate a capsule in case of emergency, then were jettisoned once the capsule had reached orbit.

Blue Origin's seven person Orbital Vehicle will be taken to orbit onboard a Reusable Booster System (RBS).   The company successfully fired the thrust chamber assembly for its new 100,000 pound thrust BE-3 liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen rocket engine at the E-1 test stand at NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi earlier this month. Engineers took the thrust chamber to its full power levels during the test.

Both activities were funded under NASA's second round of Commercial Crew Program funding. Blue Origin didn't apply for NASA's third round of developmental funding leading up to demonstration flights, with the company most likely to continue its path to suborbital and orbital vehicles using private money from its billionaire (News - Alert) founder.

Edited by Allison Boccamazzo
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