This week was a light week as far as rocket launches go: no rockets were launched to orbit. The one and only rocket that did take off was NS-15, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, on a surprise mission at 17:50 UTC on April 14. When I say surprise, I don’t mean that the launch was a secret, but rather that they only announced that it would occur three days before the launch. Usually, there is more notice for rocket launches, like weeks or months. It may not be an exact date — and dates do change — but most of the time it’s known what rocket is expected to take off when. (Dates changing at the last minute is how you end up planning a trip to see rocket launches and then don’t see any rocket launches.)
Blue Origin didn’t say anything until a Twitter Bot called “Space TFR’s” posted that there was a filing for an airspace closure over Blue Origin’s launch site in Corn Ranch, Texas. Even after that tweet, it took almost six hours for Blue Origin to put out an official tweet promising “more details soon”. All of this is in stark contrast to SpaceX’s Starship program, which is conducted largely in the open.
On the day of launch, the Blue Origin webcast went live about an hour before their intended launch time. After over an hour of delays, the vehicle lifted off into the clear blue West Texas sky. The launch was nominal, and about ten minutes after launch both the booster and capsule successfully landed back on the ground. The booster reached an apogee of 105 kilometers above ground level. The capsule reached a slightly higher apogee of 107 kilometers. Total mission elapsed time was just over ten minutes and the peak velocity of the capsule was just under one kilometer a second.
NS-15 is the latest in Blue Origin’s test program of the New Shepard vehicle, and Blue Origin described it as a “verification step prior to flying crew”.
During the countdown, four astronaut stand-in employees practiced getting into the White Room on the launch tower and boarding the capsule as the rocket was fully fueled. Two of the stand-in astronauts were strapped into the seats and the hatch closed. The hatch wasn’t closed for long, and the stand-in astronauts were swiftly removed and replaced by a dummy astronaut called Mannequin Skywalker. Then the hatch was securely fastened and the rocket was launched.
After the capsule landed, the stand-in astronauts got back into the capsule and the recovery crew practiced taking the astronauts out of the capsule as if they had just landed in it, with the recovery crew opening the hatch and assisting the “astronauts” out of their seats.
Other payloads on the capsule included the instrumented test dummy, Mannequin Skywalker, and 25,000 postcards from students in Blue Origin’s Club for the Future.
Blue Origin press release