Blue Origin successfully tests its crew escape system

By Phil Plait | October 23, 2012 7:43 am

Reliance on American vehicles to take humans back into space took another step up over the weekend, when the private company Blue Origin – founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos – successfully tested their crew escape system.

Putting people in space isn’t easy, and is fraught with danger. NASA requires that, in the case of an emergency, there is a proven escape system for the crew in case the rocket underneath them goes kablooie. One reliable system is to have a small solid rocket above the crew capsule that can pull it away to safety (which is how it was done for Apollo).

Interestingly, the Blue Origin method is to use a rocket underneath the capsule, so they call it a "pusher". Unlike other methods, this rocket is reusable, a technology NASA likes to explore. It lifted a full-scale suborbtial crew capsule to a height of 700 meters (2300 feet) and carried it 500 meters (1600 feet) downrange.

I couldn’t embed the video of the launch, but you can see it at the Blue Origin site. I recommend it. It’s pretty cool.

Blue Origin is notoriously secretive about what they’re working on. They have a crew capsule, and they’re working on an unmanned suborbital space vehicle called New Shepherd. They have their sights set on orbital flight, but it’s not clear exactly how they’re going about doing that. Currently, plans are to use an Atlas V for launching vehicles. However, just last week Blue Origin successfully tested a rocket engine they’re developing, and it’s obvious this is what they hope to eventually use to get to orbit.

Currently, the only private company that can go to space is SpaceX – their Dragon capsule is still berthed to the space station as I write this – but it looks like they won’t be alone for long. Sierra Nevada, another company, is also working on a suborbital vehicle called Lynx Dream Chaser [oops! Got the name mixed up originally; Lynx is the XCOR spaceship] with an eye to orbit.

The more the merrier. With better tech, and competition, the price for getting to space will drop, and accessibility will go up. Some people wonder why I’m optimistic about space exploration in the near future. Well, here you have it. NASA can save a lot of money contracting out to these and other companies. If these plans go well, in ten years, maybe less, the face of space travel will have changed dramatically.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures, Space
MORE ABOUT: Blue Origin

Comments (26)

  1. Now that’s another “blue flame”* of sorts! ;-)

    Good news although I can’t wait to see more progress and brand new flying machines fly.

    I really hope your right about this issue BA.

    * Rocket car memories – and link in name.

  2. Tony

    Ok, maybe this is a stupid question, or maybe this has already been thought about and addressed, but who will be responsible for tracking all these vehicles once they achieve orbit? When it was just NASA and their Russian counterpart, they would keep track of their own and each other, but within 10 years, we could have a lot of different entities up there. Shouldn’t there be a separate organization responsible for tracking all this, like air traffic controllers do for flights? I would imagine this must be similar to the early days of aviation.

  3. Steve Jones

    @Tony: NASA monitors the hundreds of thousands of bits of space debris that are already zooming around up there through its Orbital Debris programme: http://orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov (read the FAQ for some alarming stats!)

    I reckon they’ll be more than capable of adding some spaceships to that number – they’re pretty big things after all!

  4. Ferris Valyn

    Tony – The Air Force has the radar systems that actually track all objects the size of grapefruits and larger (it might be smaller than that, but I know they can go to at least that size).

    The reality is that we ALREADY have a lot of different entities up there (the number of satellites for countries, and companies, particularly in the communication market and the imagery market is quite large), and there is an emerging realization that someone needs to be working on looking at and considering where orbital conjunctions might happen. I know the FAA/AST’s office is looking at this, and would possibly be one place to do this.

  5. Douglas

    Is it just me or does that launch look like it would pull enough Gs to turn everyone inside the capsule to mush?

  6. Just some precision: SpaceX is the only private US company that can send a capsule to the ISS. Private European companies EADS and Arianespace send the ATV to the ISS. The RSC Energia firm in Russia builds the Soyuz manned capsule and the Progress cargo capsule.
    Also, don’t forget that in the US, the United Launch Alliance (a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing) build and fly the Delta and Atlas fleet of rockets. Finally, the Boeing company has built most of the US components of the ISS and helps to run the station, with NASA, on a day-to-day basis.
    http://www.boeing.com/defense-space/space/spacestation/overview/boeings_role.html
    (and no, I’ve no personal connection with Boeing. Am just an armchair fan of spaceflight ;) )

  7. Ferris Valyn

    Douglas – most launch escape systems will be very uncomfortable, and the one time it was used (it was for Soyuz 18a) and one of the cosmonauts was injured

    But they did survive.

  8. Sparky

    Phil, great post, but Sierra Nevada is building a Spaceplane called the “Dream Chaser”. Lynx is a suborbital craft being developed by a company called Xcor.

  9. Joe R

    That video really was worth watching. Awesome!

  10. This is the link to the video, Phil: https://s3.amazonaws.com/blue-publicweb/videos/PET-Stream.m4v
    Maybe it is embeddable after all?

  11. ABC

    Much as I’m a SpaceX fan, over those “other guys” building a commercial spacecraft but using big-space methods and inefficiencies, Orbital will probably be the next private company capable of launching to space (or at least attempting), not Sierra Nevada.

  12. Steve Rodgers

    Douglas, it is going to be one uncomfortable ride, but it is an escape system that is only to be used when a major malfunction occurs. With a spacecraft full of millions of pounds of highly explosive rocket fuel igniting just feet below you, you don’t want to hang around. These escape systems are designed to get you as far away as possible as fast as possible. The alternative is to be vaporized in giant ball of fire, so I’m guessing most astronauts will accept the discomfort.

  13. If there was a manual on this capsule, it’d be called the New Shepherd Book.
    Which would be awesome.
    For Firefly fans only.

  14. Ferris Valyn

    ABC – who is next depends entirely on what type of spaceflight you are talking.

    To break it down slightly

    – if you are talking who next can send something to space, it has to be ULA (United Launch Alliance) since they frequently launch stuff
    – if you are talking about sending stuff to station, you are probably looking at Orbital Sciences, and their Antares rocket & Cygnus spacecraft
    – if you are talking about people to space, you would probably need to look at either XCOR or Virgin Galactic, (I should also mention Masten and Armadillo, but when they get to human spaceflight I don’t really know, as their vehicles don’t require humans). These are suborbital.
    – if y ou are talking humans to orbit (or station – at the moment there is no difference) then according to schedules published, its SpaceX’s DragonRider, Boeing’s CST-100, and Sierra Nevada’s DreamChaser

  15. ErisWolf

    YAY! Maybe one day i can vacation on the space station.

  16. Ohio Mike

    I echo Douglas’ post (#5)…It looked like a capsule full of pink mush vs discomfort would result.

    Richard (#13): I would read that book. Browncoats!

  17. ajollynerd

    So I don’t know if I’m the first or only one to ask this, but how many Gs would the astronauts in that capsule be pulling? It looks to me like that thing goes from zero to HOLY CRAP! in waaaaaaay to little time.

    Can anyone guess the physics here?

  18. Wheeeeeeee!
    Hey, as far as bootstrapping a private space launch company and making money as you go, I wonder, why wait until you actually get to space to start selling rides?? I’m sure a lot of people (perhaps mainly among the extreme sport crowd) would be willing to pay money to give the crew escape system a shot! I know I would if I had the dough ;)

    @17 ajollynerd: So I don’t know if I’m the first or only one to ask this, but how many Gs would the astronauts in that capsule be pulling? It looks to me like that thing goes from zero to HOLY CRAP! in waaaaaaay to little time.
    Can anyone guess the physics here?

    I don’t have the math chops to guesstimate, but I do know that ejection seat G forces normally range from about 14 to 18 Gs, albeit often with some injuries. The Soyuz launch escape system pulls somewhere between 14 to 17 Gs, though it’s worth noting that in a space capsule you’re lying on your back, not sitting upright as in an ejection seat. They’ve done tests demonstrating that people can stay conscious and even operate controls at up to 20 Gs if they’re lying supine in a well-designed couch. It’s a helluva ride, though, I’m sure :)

  19. #18 Joseph G:
    The Soyuz launch escape system was once used in anger, when a rocket exploded on the pad. As someone has already said, one of the cosmonauts was injured, but they survived.
    There was also another Soyuz launch which had to be aborted at an altitude of about 90 miles, when the upper rocket stage failed. That was simply a case of separating the capsule from the rocket, and returning to ground on a ballistic trajectory. The crew experienced a deceleration of 14G, and survived without injury.

  20. Wzrd1

    Phil, getting a human into space isn’t difficult at all. Rockets that are built with good quality control of the components and assembly thereof are extremely reliable.
    Now, getting people to space and survive, then return them to Earth alive… THAT is hard.

    @Neil Haggath, #19, as I recall, that Soyuz came in initially “head down” until the service module was torn free and the capsule could move into its proper entry position. I’d say that was a VERY good design, to survive that long on entry inverted from entry position!

  21. IanO

    As Sparky mentioned and Ferris Valyn clarified, you got the name of the spaceplane wrong at the end of your article. Sierra Nevada is developing the orbital manned spaceplane Dream Chaser, to be launched atop an Atlas V launch vehicle. It is a lifting body design with heritage going back decades to the HL-20, with continued development by SpaceDev and Jim Benson before acquisition by Sierra Nevada. They got half their requested funding, so they are unlikely to fly before 2017. They are in competition with the SpaceX Dragon (2015) and Boeing CST-100 (2016) capsules for delivering crew to the ISS under the Commercial Crew program. Blue Origin themselves used to be in this competition with a biconic capsule, but were not given funding during the latest round.

    XCOR Aerospace is developing the Lynx SUBorbital 2-person spaceplane, aiming for airplane-like operations to the Karman-line for tourism, micro-gravity experimentation, and astronomy. The competitors in this segment are Blue Origin’s New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

  22. @19 Neil HaggathThere was also another Soyuz launch which had to be aborted at an altitude of about 90 miles, when the upper rocket stage failed. That was simply a case of separating the capsule from the rocket, and returning to ground on a ballistic trajectory. The crew experienced a deceleration of 14G, and survived without injury.

    That one I did not know about. Gonna Google that now :)
    PS: According to teh Wiki regarding Soyuz 18a, because of deviation in attitude of the rocket at the time of the abort, they actually pegged up to 21 Gs!

    @20 Wzrd1: As I recall, that Soyuz came in initially “head down” until the service module was torn free and the capsule could move into its proper entry position. I’d say that was a VERY good design, to survive that long on entry inverted from entry position!

    Something that I keep reading in comparisons of Russian and American space hardware is that the Russian stuff tends to be built tough and simple. That they’re quicker to sacrifice efficiency in the name of ruggedness then NASA seems to be. Given what happened to the Challenger and Colombia, they may be on to something…

    /*Popping some corn and getting ready for the angry rebuttals*

  23. MadScientist

    I can’t help wondering what the interfaces will be like. Can a Blue Origin capsule be fitted to a Falcon-9 and so on, or will everyone have a different system again?

    @Joseph#22: The Russians just don’t mess around with something that works. Though there have been small changes to the Soyuz capsule over the years, it’s still instantly recognized as a Soyuz. There was that brief flirt with the Buran (which in my opinion could have been superior to the US shuttle because it didn’t have so much dead weight, aka main rocket motors, on reentry) but there was simply no economic case for using a fleet of Buran rather than the Soyuz. I don’t think it’s correct to say they sacrifice efficiency for ruggedness – they do their engineering tradeoffs and come up with something which works then tend to stick to that rather than tweaking everything for optimum performance. It’s an attitude of getting something which works out the door, and other space programs around the world aren’t very different – they just happen to make different engineering decisions.

  24. Wzrd1

    @Joseph G, enjoy your popcorn. No argument here. Never met a stupid Russian and I doubt I ever will. I HAVE met some extremely bright engineers, who overcame some technological lacks with extremely creative mechanical and electrical engineering that was highly reliable and incredibly rugged. :)
    So, I’ll call it overengineered for ruggedness in a harsh environment. That overengineering showed in those inverted entries (there were several), where an Apollo would’ve been lost.
    Their lunar rover did an excellent job long before the US got around to making a rover.
    The only problem that the Russian space program has ever had was the rare quality control issue, but NASA had its own as well (Apollo 13 and Challenger come to mind).
    Considering the unforgiving environment and stresses involved in launch to orbit, I’ll gladly toast some wodka to our Russian engineers!

  25. Ferris Valyn

    Blue Origin is initially going to use the Atlas V, and then will move to their own vehicle (or at least, that’s their public statements)

  26. @23 Mad Scientist: I can’t help wondering what the interfaces will be like. Can a Blue Origin capsule be fitted to a Falcon-9 and so on, or will everyone have a different system again?

    Great question! That seems to be one big down side of handing development over to private interests: everyone will want to have their own proprietary standards that they can license out.
    Or maybe I’m thinking too much like the computer geek I am. I know when it comes to software, industry standards take a LOT of wrangling to come by (just look at how many video codecs and media file formats there are). Hopefully it’ll be more like the PC hardware industry where certain standards (like USB and SATA) are just universally adopted.

    There was that brief flirt with the Buran (which in my opinion could have been superior to the US shuttle because it didn’t have so much dead weight, aka main rocket motors, on reentry) but there was simply no economic case for using a fleet of Buran rather than the Soyuz.

    True, but remember that the Buran was just one possible configuration of the Energia stack, and both it and Soyuz were developed by the same company. If development had continued, I’m sure they would have investigated using it to launch Soyuz (or perhaps a similar larger spacecraft). IMHO, if it hadn’t been for the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Energia/Buran would have been hugely successful, even expensive as it was.
    Also, it turns out that the Angara rocket family currently under development uses engines based on the engines that powered the Energia and its Zenit boosters, so the program (in a way) lives on :)

    @24 Wzrd1: So, I’ll call it overengineered for ruggedness in a harsh environment. That overengineering showed in those inverted entries (there were several), where an Apollo would’ve been lost.
    That’s probably a big part of it, yeah. The US never had to ship the Apollo or Shuttle to another country and then assemble and launch it into sub-zero snowy weather :)

    Considering the unforgiving environment and stresses involved in launch to orbit, I’ll gladly toast some wodka to our Russian engineers!

    Hear, hear! (Though isn’t Wodka Polish?)
    I’ve always been impressed by the Venera program, especially the landers. Talk about engineering for an unforgiving environment!

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