On August 2nd, 2016 we learned about

Sub-orbital rocket tested to ensure crew capsule doesn’t crash in sub-optimal landing conditions

Not every rocket needs to shoot for the stars. There’s plenty to be learned without even placing a craft into orbit, which is why Blue Origin, a commercial spacecraft firm founded by Jeff Bezos, recently launched a rocket with their goals tied to hitting the ground. The test flight of their New Shepard vehicle was considered a success, since one of the parachutes on the crew capsule didn’t open before it hit the ground, exactly as planned.

Safely returning with retrorockets

With no actual crew in the crew capsule, the goal of this test was to see how well things would work when something went wrong. To see if humans might survive a landing that involved a malfunctioning parachute, one of the three chutes was disabled before the rocket launched. The New Shepard craft flew to 331,501 feet, somewhere in the low thermosphere, and deployed the crew capsule. The rocket successfully landed itself for the fourth time, having already been used in three other tests.

The “broken” capsule fell faster than if all three parachutes had deployed, but not so fast it was out of control. Rather than the usual descent speed of 16 miles-per-hour, it dropped closer to 23 miles-per-hour, and was then further braked by a retrorocket on its bottom surface. This thruster was activated at the last moment, slowing it down enough to make for a safe landing at a mere three miles-per-hour. As yet another fail-safe, the bottom of the capsule has a crushable ring of honeycombed aluminum, intended to further cushion the craft’s landings. The Blue Origin team was happy to share that this bumper was barely compressed at all in this test, demonstrating the effectiveness of the retrorocket and remaining parachutes.

Sub-orbital space-vacations

The goal in these tests is to create reusable rockets for commercial purposes. While there is obviously a lot of scientific interest in getting equipment and people in to Earth’s orbit and beyond, the New Shepard craft is only intended for short, sub-orbital flights. These may be for scientific tests concerning microgravity (such as what’s now done on the Vomit Comet,) or for everyday folks who want to feel out-of-this-world, if only for a couple of minutes. Work has also begun on orbital space-tourism, but these more modest journeys are a starting point, especially with the proven safety record.

Source: Blue Origin Test Flight Was a Successful Failure. Literally, in Fact. by Phil Plait, Bad Astronomy

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