Thursday, January 04, 2007

First launch for Blue Origin

You have to give it to Jeff Bezos, he's managed a top flight skunk works project and kept it out of the media to an astonishing degree. Despite the relative secrecy surrounding places like Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, or for different reasons Bigelow Aerospace, I've got an educated outsiders idea of what's probably happening on the inside. Of course places like Armadillo Aerosapce are running with a fairly open business model to begin with, but not Bezos' Blue Origin.

CREDIT: Blue Origin
Blue Origin's Goddard vehicle, the first sub-scale development vehicle in the New Shepard programme, coming out of the "barn" before its launch from Van Horn, west Texas, early in the morning of November 13, 2006.

On the 7th of November last year the FAA issued a NOTAM for a series of test flights by Blue Origin between 10th to the 13th of November. While the first test was reported to have taken place on the 13th, at 6:30 am local time (12:30 UTC), very little was actually known as to what happened other than the test flight was judged successful, and the vehicle had reached an altitude of 285 ft.

So the story on BBC news today which gave the first details I've seen of the test flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard, a vertical take-off, vertical-landing vehicle, came as a surprise.

Video of the initial test flight

They're a lot further on than I, or I guess a lot of other people, thought they were. They seem to have replicated a good deal of the work done by McDonnell Douglas on the DC-X programme and might even have push beyond that, perhaps we should have expected this as the rumour is that several of the engineers who worked on the DC-X have since been hired by Blue Origin.

It really looks like Blue Origin is pushing the boundaries, and this certainly re-enforces the idea that all the interesting work on reusable spacecraft is happening in the private sector these days. My only regret is that both on the skills they need, and my obvious problems with ITAR since I'm not a U.S. citizen or resident alien, they wouldn't be interested in yet another software person. Even one with a somewhat exotic skill set...

Update: There is a good article over at MSNBC covering the flight, and they've come pretty much to the same conclusion I did. That Bezos' has only released this footage so that he can recruit some new people with heavy lifter experience. He's looking for people with experience with Delta IV or Atlas V, and those aren't small vehicles. Blue Origin isn't in the sub-orbital business like Scaled Composites and Branson, no matter what Bezos is saying right now they're playing a longer game and working towards an full blown single stage to orbit lifter.

Update: I'm in good company, as it looks like John Carmack thinks that this might be a sub-scale prototype of a SSTO vehicle as well,
When we saw the weight listed in the papers filed with the FAA, I thought that the only reason to build a suborbital vehicle that large would be if you intended to also boost upper stages for orbital work, but it doesn't look like the shown design would be appropriate for that. Maybe it is a subscale version of an SSTO, or a nearly-SSTO upper stage intended to be boosted by an even larger straight-up-straight-down VTVL. - John Carmack, Armadillo Aerosapce
Update: John Carmack's comments on the Blue Origin test have got me thinking. Unlike Blue Origin's Goddard, Armadillo's Pixel and Texel don't have an aeroshell. I'm wondering why that is? We know that Blue Origin's FAA permit allows them to go higher than Armadillo, but how high? I guess I need to dig out the permits and compare them, but I'm thinking the aeroshell is significant. Perhaps not technically, but it shows that the two companies are taking very different approaches to the business, if that wasn't immediately obvious from the way they approach publicity. It'd be hard to find a more open approach to prototyping than John's in-depth discussion of the design work going on at Armadillo after all. But ignoring that you can tell a lot about Pixel's design by looking at pictures, but there is very little you can get out of the pictures of Blue Origin's Goddard. So my bet is that Blue Origin will retreat back into their "cone of silence", as Carmack puts it, after they manage to recruit the people they need and it'll be a while before we hear from them again...

Update: I just dug up the environmental impact statement (19.5MB, PDF) from the FAA's web site. I'm not going to trawl through the 200+ pages in too much detail, but it does confirms its use of a high-test peroxide mono-propellant which is something I was wondering about as the burn looked way too clean to be a bi-propellant.


  1. I'm thrilled to finally see Blue Origin's work! The rocket exhaust is curious. I don't see the exhaust at all except for the effect it has on dirt and dust. Is it a hydrogen/oxygen burn?

  2. Its apparently using hydrogen peroxide mono-propellant, which means that what you're seeing is steam;

    2 H2O2 -> O2 + 2 H2O

    However while a hydrogen peroxide mono-propellant is easier to throttle, it does not yield great performance. It's a good choice for an early prototype vehicle that is only flying up a few thousand feet, in fact I believe Carmack and Armadillo Aerospace made the same choice for just those reasons.

    However, Bezos is now looking for propulsion engineers with "...turbopump or propulsion experience on large, modern, cryogenic engines such as the RS-68". The RS-68 is the largest LOX/LH2 booster in existence, built by Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne for Boeing’s Delta 4 rocket. Bezos is also looking for "...structures experience on large, modern vehicles such as Delta IV or Atlas V".