Texas Governor Rick Perry devoted almost a full minute to commercial spaceflight during his State of the State Address.
Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and XCOR Aerospace are helping to make Texas the Space State.
Blue Origin is planning some major design changes for the next version of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, according to MSNBC’s Alan Boyle.
Boyle reports that the new New Shepard will use a single liquid-hydrogen rocket engine, instead of five kerosene rocket engines. He quotes Blue Origin’s business-development manager Brett Alexander saying, “It’ll look a little different, but it’s essentially the same size.”
That statement is somewhat odd, because liquid hydrogen has a much lower density than liquid kerosene. Hydrogen is lighter and more energetic, so a smaller weight of propellant is required for the same mission but the volume is normally larger. That implies larger tanks. (This is one of the reasons why hydrogen-fueled airliners have never gotten past the drawing board. The fuselage always ends up being huge and filled mostly with fuel rather than passengers.)
In addition, the size of engine pumps scales with the volume of propellant to be pumped, rather than the weight. Hydrogen-fueled engines generally have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio than kerosene engines. That could be offset, though, by lower thrust requirements since the hydrogen weighs less than an equivalent amount of kerosene. There might also be some weight savings from replacing five smaller engines with one larger engine.
Blue Origin successfully tested its launch escape system on October 19. Blue Origin founder (and Amazon.com CEO) Jeff Bezos posted a terse message on the Blue Origin website today: “The Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to pull off this first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule escape system. Please enjoy the photos and video. Gradatim Ferociter!”
The crew capsule was lofted to 2,307 feet by an Aerojet solid-rocket motor, then returned to Earth under three parachutes and touched down 1,630 feet from the launch pad. Blue Origin plans to use parachutes for routine landings as well as pad escape. The New Shepherd suborbital vehicle is divided into a crew capsule and a propulsion module, separated by an interstage section. The propulsion module will return to the launch pad for powered landing, but the crew capsule will separate and return to Earth by parachute.
“The use of a pusher configuration marks a significant departure from the traditional towed-tractor escape tower concepts of Mercury and Apollo,” said Blue Origin president and program manager Rob Meyerson. “Providing crew escape without the need to jettison the unused escape system gets us closer to our goal of safe and affordable human spaceflight.” Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Boeing, and Sierra Nevada planning to use pusher escape systems for their orbital crew capsules and spaceplane. Only NASA’s Orion capsule is sticking with the tried-and-true but inefficient tractor system.
This is one of the last tests to be conducted under Blue Origin’s Space Act Agreement with NASA. Blue Origin did not apply for continued funding under the final phase of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program. Blue Origin will pursue continued development with its own funding from here on.
“The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango. “It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight.”
Also see Design Changes for New Shepard.
Among the emerging commercial space transportation companies, Blue Origin is the most secretive and mysterious. A rare glimpse inside the company’s Kent, Washington headquarters came in December 2011 when NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver got a VIP tour from Blue Origin founder (and Amazon.com CEO) Jeff Bezos. The following photo was released by NASA.
Jeff Bezos and Lori Garver stand at the center. The white-haired gentleman is Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson. What appears to be a Blue Origin crew capsule hangs in the background. An enlarged view of the capsule appears below.
Time flies like a rocket. It’s been a little over a year since the last flight of a Blue Origin test vehicle.
On 6 May 2011, Blue Origin successfully flew its New Shepard Propulsion Module 2 (PM2) on a short test hop.
On 24 August 2011, Blue Origin flew the PM2 to Mach 1.2 and 45,000 feet. Unfortunately, the vehicle lost stability and exceeded its planned angle-of-attack, causing the range-safety system to terminate thrust. The PM2 crashed in the desert.
Author Neal Stephenson, a founder of the dystopian school of science fiction known as cyberpunk, has had a change of heart.
Stephenson now worries that the gloomy outlook he inspired may discourage students from studying science and engineering. During a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stephenson said he is “trying to make a literary course correction” toward more optimistic fiction.
We remember the time when science fiction was the literature of optimism, and we’ve been unhappy with the turn it’s taken in recent decades. So, we welcome this news.
Stephenson is a friend of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. He helped Bezos found his rocket company Blue Origin, which must count as atonement (at least in part) for his literary sins. Perhaps his experiences at Blue Origin helped bring about his more optimistic change of heart. Perhaps Stephenson will talk to Bezos about being more open about the progress he’s making at Blue Origin. Working in complete secrecy might make it easier for Blue Origin to achieve some of its business goals, but a little more openness about their goals and accomplishments would help to inspire the next generation.