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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Behind it, the capsule dropped back through the atmosphere, its natural shape allowing it to remain upright and slow itself as it entered the increasingly dense atmosphere after an initial downward acceleration following apogee.
At 2km above the ground and with the capsule travelling at 200 km/h, the drogue parachutes deployed, slowing the vehicle to under 150 km/h and allowing the three main ‘chute to deploy and carry the capsule down towards a touch-down that was made softer – just 8 km/h as air was blasted from the bottom of the capsule when it was just a metre from the ground.
Following landing, the crew had to remain in their sits while the vehicle automatically vented potentially hazardous gasses and then while the ground crew both ensured the capsule was safe and properly grounded to discharge any static build-up on its hull following its passage through the atmosphere Even so, all four passengers were out of the capsule and with family and loved ones in remarkably short order, with Blue Origin ending the live stream shortly after, promising a post-flight press briefing later in the day.
So what does having two billionaires make sub-orbital trips actually mean? To be honest – not an awful lot if we were to look at the Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights purely as “billionaires playing with their toys”, as some have chosen to do. But doing so misses the point Branson has already stated that he would like to reduce the cost of a ticket aboard Virgin Galactic by up to 90% within a decade.
That’s not going to bring the cost to within the reach of everyone, but if sub-orbital flights in this manner, or via balloons such as Space Perspective plan to offer (see: Space Sunday: Balloons to space, Mars movies and alien water clouds), do manage to reach a point where they can be enjoyed by thousands around the world, they could help further a transformative understanding as to the fragile and unique nature of our world.
In the meantime, here’s a video extracted from the live stream showing the NS-16 flight, courtesy of SciNews.