Blue Origin, the Kent-based rocket maker, launched its New Shepard rocket Wednesday on a test flight from West Texas. The rocket performed a "high altitude escape motor test", the company said on Twitter, simulating a high-altitude emergency scenario by igniting the escape booster on the bottom of the passenger, or in this case, payload capsule. Both the booster and the capsule landed safely less than 12 minutes after liftoff, the latter touching down softly on the desert floor under parachutes, sending up a plume of dust.
The test required sending the capsule up to between 390,000 and 400,000 feet (roughly 120 kilometers) and then waiting for about 20 seconds for the booster to clear, ensuring that its exhaust wouldn't interfere with the capsule test. Unlike NASA's Mercury and Apollo spacecraft, which jettisoned their escape rockets before reaching orbit, Blue Origin's is built into the capsule.
Wednesday's passenger was Mannequin Skywalker, an instrumented dummy in a blue flight suit that's flown before, plus science experiments.
Although Blue Origin is yet to provide details, it is understood the company has already purchased the first landing ship for returning New Glenn boosters. Wednesday's flight tested the system at high altitude, just after the booster's BE-3 engine shut down following a smooth climb out of the thick lower atmosphere.
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The remaining nine passengers drove themselves to the hospital, and the fire department said their injuries were superficial. The harbour is about an hour's boat ride away from where lava from Big Island's Kilauea volcano has been hitting the ocean.
Blue Origin is owned by Jeffrey P. Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post.
Today's mission was created to test the high-altitude escape motor of New Shepard's crew capsule, said representatives of Blue Origin, which is run by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos. Launch commentator Ariane Cornell promised it would be soon.
Eventually, up to six passengers at a time could get on board the New Shepard spaceship, which flies under autonomous control. (Blue Origin via You Tube) New Shepard's capsule fires its retros as it touches down for a landing. "We haven't set a price". The company says more than 700 people have signed up to fly.
Blue Origin has completed a sprawling rocket factory near the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to build New Glenn rockets and is developing a launch pad at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.