Blue Origin’s launch of the tourism rocket will end a nearly two-year hiatus

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Blue Origin’s tourism rocket is preparing to launch passengers to the edge of space for the first time in nearly two years, ending a hiatus left by a failed unmanned test flight.

The New Shepard rocket and capsule were prepared for liftoff during the window that opened at 8:30 a.m. Central time (9:30 a.m. Eastern time) from Blue Origin facilities on a private ranch in West Texas. The expected launch time has since shifted to 8:52 a.m. EDT (9:52 a.m. ET), according to Updated on Sunday From Blue Origin. a Live broadcast The mission, called NS-25, will launch at approximately 8:12 a.m. EDT (9:12 a.m. ET) on the website of the company founded by Jeff Bezos.

NS-25, Blue Origin’s seventh crewed flight to date, will carry six customers aboard the capsule: venture capitalist Mason Angel; Sylvain Chiron, founder of French craft brewery Brasserie Mont Blanc; software engineer and entrepreneur Kenneth L. Hess; Retired accountant Carol Schaller. Gopi pilot Thottakura; and Ed Dwight, a retired U.S. Air Force captain selected in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy to be the nation’s first black astronaut nominee.

Despite completing training at the Aerospace Research Experimental School and receiving an Air Force recommendation, Dwight did not ultimately join NASA’s Astronaut Corps. He went on to become a businessman and sculptor. A new National Geographic documentary about black astronauts,Space racehighlights Dwight’s groundbreaking story.

“I had no intention of being an astronaut. It was the last thing on my bucket list,” Dwight said in the documentary. “But once I was given the challenge, everything changed.”

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Dwight will complete this challenge and reach the edge of space at age 90, making him the oldest person to venture to such heights, according to a Blue Origin spokesperson.

During the mission, the crew will soar to more than three times the speed of sound, or more than 2,000 miles per hour. The rocket will propel the capsule beyond the Kármán Line, an area 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface. It is widely known as the altitude at which outer space begins, but there are a lot of gray areas.

At the height of the flight, passengers will experience a few minutes of weightlessness and stunning views of Earth through the cabin windows.

The launch follows a successful unmanned science mission in December, the first flight for the New Shepard program since the accident more than a year ago.

A New Shepard rocket and spacecraft were scheduled to launch a suite of scientific instruments on September 12, 2022. But one minute into the flight, the rocket bore Max Q — a space term that refers to the moment of maximum pressure on the vehicle. This happens when the rocket is at a relatively low altitude — the atmosphere is still fairly thick — but the spacecraft is moving at high speeds, creating a moment of intense pressure on the vehicle.

Around that time, the missile appeared to unleash a massive wave of fire. The New Shepard capsule, riding atop the rocket, then initiated its launch abort system, activating a small engine to safely blast itself away from the crippled rocket. This system worked as intended, resulting in a safe parachute landing of the capsule.

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Blue Origin later open The cause of the malfunction is a problem with the engine nozzle, which is a large cone that directs burning exhaust to the bottom of the missile. The plane’s on-board computers accurately detected the malfunction and stopped the engine, according to the company.

The NS-25 mission will carry a crew of six, including (from left) Sylvain Chiron, Kenneth L.  Hess, Ed Dwight, Gopi Thutakura, Mason Angell, and Carol Schaller.

No casualties were reported on Earth, and Blue Origin said the scientific payloads and capsule could be launched again.

But the rocket, left without a working engine, hit the ground again And it was destroyed. Normally, after New Shepard is launched, the rocket’s booster directs itself toward a safe straight landing so it can be flown again.

During a December interview with podcast host Lex Friedman, Bezos said the escape system that jettisoned the capsule to safety was the most difficult piece of engineering in the entire rocket — but “that’s why I’m comfortable letting anyone go to New Shepard.”

“The booster (rocket) is as safe and reliable as possible,” Bezos added. “The energy density is so enormous that it is impossible to be sure that nothing will go wrong. …So the only way to improve safety is to have an escape system.

“A touring car, in my view, should be designed…to be as safe as possible,” he said. “You can’t make it completely safe. It’s impossible.”

Repairing the missile and returning it to service

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches and is charged with ensuring public safety, oversaw an investigation into the failure. The investigation revealed that the engine nozzle malfunctioned due to exposure to higher temperatures than the company expected.

To fix the problem, Blue Origin said it implemented “changes to the design of the combustion chamber” — the area of ​​the engine where fuel explosively mixes with the oxidizer — and modified “operating parameters,” or data the company uses to model safe flights.

“Additional changes to the nozzle design have improved structural performance under thermal and dynamic loads,” the company said in a March 2023 statement. statement.

The FAA officially ended its investigation into the accident on September 27, 2023, and identified 21 “corrective actions” that Blue Origin must implement before returning to flight. The agency did not reveal details about what these procedures are. Note the report “Contains US ownership and export control data The information is not available for public release.”

The changes and New Shepard’s successful flight in December prompted the company to resume its space travel for thrill-seekers.

Before failing in September 2022, New Shepard rockets had flown 22 consecutive successful missions, including six with passengers on board. Bezos flew on the rocket in 2021. Other notable space tourists previously flown by the vehicle include “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan.

CNN’s Madeleine Holcomb contributed to this report.

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