Space Special: four fly on New Shepard NS-16

New Shepard NS-16 on the pad at Blue Origin’s launch facilities in Culberson County, west Texas. Credit: Blue Origin

On July 20th, 2021, the 52nd anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, Jeff Bezos became the second billionaire to make a sub-orbital flight into space aboard a vehicle he had made possible, following on the heels of Sir Richard Branson (see: Space Sunday: Unity 22 flies). But whereas Branson took over an hour to make his trip up and back again aboard his space plane VSS Unity (including a leisurely club to launch altitude slung under the wing pylon of the carrier aircraft MSS Eve), Bezos made the trip in 10 minutes and 18 seconds, thundering aloft whilst sitting on top of his sub-orbital New Shepherd launcher.

This was the first of several notable differences between the two flights, some of which Blue Origin has done much to belabour over the last couple of weeks, and took time out to do so during Bezos’ flight.

Of these, the most notable is that while Branson’s Virgin Galactic may offer a longer overall experience, it comes at a cost of the altitude reached: around 86 kilometres. By contrast, the more powerful BE-3 engine of a New Shepard carries passengers in excess of 100 km, taking them above the Kármán line, which as I’ve noted before, is widely (but no exclusively) see as the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space.

A simplified diagram showing the NS-16 flight plan from launch through to landing with the booster and the capsule. Credit: Blue Origin.

How big a point this might be is debatable – in the United State, where both companies operate, the boundary is put at 80 km, which the Virgin Galactic flights clearly cross – and as I’ve noted before in Space Sunday, both altitudes mean that passengers on the two vehicles get to experience about 3 minutes in a micro-gravity environment and get to see more-or-less the same view out of their vehicle’s windows (albeit through much larger windows in the case of New Shepard, again as Blue Origin have belaboured of late.

NS-16, as the July 20th flight was officially designated, being the 16th flight of a New Shepard booster and capsule combination, technically also marks both the first time New Shepard has carried humans aloft, and marks the first flight of a fare-paying passenger aboard a commercial sub-orbital vehicle.

The New Shepherd NS-16 “crew”: Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos, Mary “Wally” Funk and Oliver Daemon. Credit: Blue Origin

T18-year-old Dutch student Oliver Daemon was a late addition to the flight after the original winner of the auction for his seat had to postpone flying with Blue Origin. As Oliver’s father made the second-highest bid, the sat was awarded to him, and he gave it to his son.  Oliver joined Bezos and his brother and venture capitalist Mark Bezos aboard the vehicle as the youngest person to date to fly into space, bookending the crew with the 82-year-old and utterly remarkable Mary Wallace *Wally” Funk, who would, with the trip, become the oldest person to date to fly into space.

The flight had been scheduled for a lift-off at around 13:00 UTC – although as was pointed out by the live stream commentary in the run-up to the launch, this was not a hard-and-fast launch time; as the flight would be sub-orbital, it was not constrained to a specific launch window in order for it to reach a required orbit.

“Wally” Funk gives a wave from her seat aboard RSS [Reusable Space Ship] First Step, the capsule atop NS-16, as she awaits the start of her sub-orbital flight. Credit: Blue Origin
The four passengers – and this is the correct term for them, as New Origin is an entirely automated vehicle that requires no flight crew – boarded the vehicle 30 minutes ahead of the planned lift-off time. A planned countdown hold at T -15 minutes became slightly drawn-out, causing the launch time to slip past the planned 08:00 (local) lift-off, but otherwise things proceeded smoothly.

With four minutes left in the countdown, New Shepard switched to fully automated control of itself, carrying out final flight control checks by gimballing its rocket motor exhaust and “waggling” the fins at the booster’s base, as the crew access arm was retracted. At zero in the countdown, the BE-3 motor ignited, taking some 7 seconds to run up to full thrust, at which point the holding clamps released, allowing the vehicle to launch.

NS-16 clears the launch tower. Credit: Blue Origin

From here, things proceeded rapidly and smoothly. Tracked by cameras both on the ground and aboard helicopters, the New Shepard vehicle ascended rapidly, reaching 6.2 km altitude in just 60 seconds.

At this point, the BE-3 throttled back as the craft passed through Max-Q, the period when the maximum dynamic pressures are exerted on the vehicle as it punches its way through the denser atmosphere building a shockwave around itself. Following Max-Q, a period of several seconds, the motor throttled back up to full power, pushing the craft through Mach 1.

Reaching apogee – the RSS First Step capsule (the fainter, lower object) approaches its maximum altitude, the booster already dropping back towards Earth. Credit: Blue Origin

At 2 minutes 20, MECO – main engine cut-off – occurred, the vehicle at an altitude of 58.5 km – high enough to see the curvature of the Earth – and still accelerating. Just a few seconds later, at roughly 78 km altitude, the capsule separated from the booster and entered its parabolic “coast” phase during which the four passengers experienced microgravity and were allowed to move around the cabin.

While the capsule continued upwards to a apogee of 108 km, the booster, being heavier,   reached an apogee somewhat lower, then started a vertical descent back towards a landing pad using a mix of the fins at its base and “wedge fins” at its top that were deployed after capsule separation, together with gas-fired RCS systems to remain upright. Just under 7 minutes from launch, it passed generated the classic double boom of passing back through the sound barrier to sub-sonic speed, and at 1.2 km above the ground re-ignited its BE-3 motor to bring itself to a successful landing.

Oliver Daemon and Mark Bezos toss little balls to one another in micro-gravity as “Wally” Funk floats behind them aboard ESS First Step. Credit: Blue Origin

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Cica’s Summer Day in Second Life

Cica Host: Summer Day

Cica Ghost opened her latest region installation on Sunday, July 18th. Entitled Summer Day, it is, as always with Cica’s installations, accompanied by a quote; one that might possibly have more meaning when taken with the installation than may perhaps have been the case with some of Cica’s recent works, a point I’ll come back to in a moment. That quote is:

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.

– Dr Seuss

The scene is quite simple – a rolling landscape under a deep teal sky, white horses gambolling and frolicking amidst the grass and under the shade of trees; a chap fishing on a little lake where he is watched by a swan, the fish under the water perhaps teasing him by ignoring his line and bait; and a woman (his wife?) sitting outside of a house, fussing a pair of geese, one of which is perched on her lap.

Cica Host: Summer Day

What is surprising is that unlike Cica’s other region-wide installations, Summer Day has few sit-points within it – just the bench with its white cat and the little boat bobbing off-shore, so far as I could see; and there are none of the usual animations / dances that tend to be a hallmark of her work. It is this lack of animations and sits, combined with the use of the quote from Dr. Seuss that led me to wonder if, perhaps, there is a message to be found within this Installation.

Seuss’ words remind us that memories grow from the experiences we have – or create – in our lives; so it is important we ensure we make time to have experiences – moments – that will result in happy, lasting memories – be it through engaging in something we enjoy, appreciating nature’s beauty or simply having fun. Otherwise, there’s a risk that when we page back through our memories, there is a risk that rather than having a richness of experience to enjoy, we find that all we have are a lot of “what if I had just…” memories.

Cica Ghost: Summer Day

So might Summer Day be a little poke Cica is giving us to maybe take a break from computer screen and keyboard and make time for the things that will give us happy memories? Those moments needn’t be complex: just space to enjoy a favourite past-time (the chap fishing), or to enjoy the touch of nature (the woman leaving the washing and fussing the geese) or simply taking time to play (symbolised by the horses), especially if we can share the fun with a friend or loved one.

Obviously, I don’t want to put words into Cica’s mouth, but I found it hard not to escape this feeling / sentiment as I wandered Summer Day, although it is true you might find it says something different. Which is why (as always with Cica’s work), I recommend playing it a visit yourself, rather than just relying on what is written here.

However, while you do so, please excuse me if I pop out to the garden for a moment, and make some memories playing with my cat 🙂 .

Cica Ghost: Summer Day

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