Bezos' space company tests suborbital rocket

Blue Origin pulls off its first unmanned test flight from a site in west Texas. The spacecraft, which reached an altitude of 58 miles, is designed to become a reusable vehicle for space tourists someday.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
3 min read

The New Shepard rocket blasts off on its first test flight from Blue Origin's launch site in west Texas. Blue Origin

Blue Origin, a spacecraft startup owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, carried out an unmanned maiden test flight of its New Shepard suborbital rocket Wednesday, the company revealed early Thursday.

A dramatic video posted on the Blue Origin website showed the squat rocket being erected on a launch platform at the company's west Texas development facility followed by a brief countdown -- with Bezos looking on -- then a smooth liftoff and a vertical climb to an altitude of 58 miles.

At that point, the dummy crew capsule separated from its booster and completed a parachute descent to Earth.

"Our 110,000 pound thrust liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen BE-3 engine worked flawlessly, powering New Shepard through Mach 3 to its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet," Bezos said in a blog post. "The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect. Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return."

However, the New Shepard is intended to be a fully reusable suborbital spacecraft with the propulsion module flying itself to a vertical, rocket-powered landing after separation from the crew capsule. That part of the test flight Wednesday was not successful, and the video did not include any shots of its descent.

"One of our goals is reusability, and unfortunately we didn't get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent," Bezos wrote. "Fortunately, we've already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system. Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway -- we'll be ready to fly again soon."

Blue Origin is one of several space-focused companies owned by tech industry leaders who have a keen interest in either tourism or cargo delivery. Blue Origin wants to send tourists on brief suborbital trips into space, as does Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Meanwhile, Elon Musk's SpaceX already is launching cargo to the International Space Station and is building a piloted capsule to carry astronauts to and from the lab complex. Larger companies are also interested in commercializing space, including Boeing, which has a NASA contract to develop a piloted space-station ferry craft.

The New Shepard vehicle is built around the company's hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine, which can be throttled through a wide range of power settings. The booster is designed to propel a crew/cargo capsule to altitudes above 62 miles, the generally accepted boundary of space. The capsule then separates for four to five minutes of weightlessness before falling back into the discernible atmosphere for a parachute descent.

The booster, meanwhile, is designed to carry out an autonomous powered descent, using the variable-throttle BE-3 engine to fly back to a vertical touchdown for refurbishment and reuse. After an extensive series of test flights, Blue Origin hopes to begin launching people, payloads or both as a commercial endeavor

"New Shepard is designed to carry three or more astronauts up to sub-orbital space," Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson told reporters earlier this month. "We say 'three or more' because there are combinations of astronauts and science payloads. We believe the science payload market is going to be a big one, as well."

The New Shepard unmanned crew capsule descends. Blue Origin

"We continue to be big fans of the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture," Bezos said. "We chose VTVL because it's scalable to very large size. We're already designing New Shepard's sibling, her Very Big Brother -- an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard's size and is powered by our 550,000-pound thrust liquefied natural gas, liquid oxygen BE-4 engine."

The BE-4 has been selected by United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to power the company's new Vulcan rocket, the successor to the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 families of boosters.

This article originally posted as "Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin tests sub-orbital spacecraft" on CBSNews.com.