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Blue Origin gets set to fly a spaceship built for people

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to live-stream the first test flight of its first passenger-friendly space capsule on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin will launch a never-before-flown New Shepard crew capsule and booster from its West Texas facility on an uncrewed suborbital space trip as early as 9:45 a.m. CT (7:45 a.m. PT), with coverage streamed via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube.

Coverage is due to begin 30 minutes before launch, with the precise timing dependent on weather and technical readiness.

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Cosmic Space

Virgin Galactic preps for next suborbital steps

Virgin Galactic is gearing up for its first spaceflight from its new home base at New Mexico’s Spaceport America this fall — and says planetary scientist Alan Stern will be among the first commercial spacefliers.

“This is the first selection of a private-sector researcher to fly with NASA funding on commercial vehicles,” Stern said in a news release.

Stern has never flown in space, but he has a lot of space experience: He’s best-known as the principal investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt — which is hurtling outward on the edge of the solar system, ready for its next assignment.

He also has played roles in more than two dozen other space missions, and served as an associate administrator for science at NASA as well as the Commercial Spaceflight Federation’s board chairman and founder of the Suborbital Applications Researchers Group.

During his upcoming spaceflight, which is yet to be scheduled, Stern will practice astronomical observations using a low-light-level camera that was previously employed during space shuttle flights. He’ll also be fitted with sensors that will monitor his vital signs from just before the two-hour flight until after its landing.

Alan Stern
Alan Stern is associate vice president of the Space Science and Engineering Division at Southwest Research Institute. (SwRI / Purdue Photo)

Stern’s home institution, the Southwest Research Institute, bought tickets to fly on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane almost a decade ago — and his personal interest in taking a trip to space goes back even further in time. Back in 2009, Stern told me that scientific research was likely to become the killer app for suborbital spaceflight.

“You spark this industry with tourists, but I predict in the next decade the research market is going to be bigger than the tourist market,” Stern said at the time.

A decade later, the unexpected twist turned out to be that suborbital research flights preceded tourism trips as money-makers for Virgin Galactic and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. Just this week, Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship flew a dozen experiments for paying customers on an uncrewed test flight to the edge of space and back.  Scientific payloads have become a standard add-on for Virgin Galactic’s crewed test flights as well.

SpaceShipTwo’s last trip past its 50-mile-high space boundary took place back in February 2019. Since then, Virgin Galactic has moved the focus of flight operations from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port to New Mexico’s Spaceport America. Meanwhile, NASA has been working out the procedures to fund suborbital flights for researchers.

Now the stars seem to be aligning for commercial operations: Today, Virgin Galactic laid out the roadmap that it says should lead to SpaceShipTwo Unity’s first test flight to space and back from Spaceport America this fall.

The company said it’s conducting a series of rehearsals on the ground — and the pilots are using SpaceShipTwo’s carrier airplane, known as WhiteKnightTwo or VMS Eve, as an “in-flight simulator” for the approach and landing.

Chief pilot Dave Mackay explained that “the crew can practice the identical approach and landing pattern to the one they will fly in Unity – with much of the same information displays, and the same view out the window.”

Three scientific payloads will ride on SpaceShipTwo during the powered test flight, thanks to funding from NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. There’ll just be the two pilots on board — Stern and other would-be passengers will have to wait a while longer.

In an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission, Virgin Galactic says it has a “crewed, powered test flight” scheduled for Oct. 22, to be preceded by practice flights by VMS Eve. But that date isn’t written in stone (or even carbon composite).

“Although preparations are going well, we are not quite at the stage where we can confirm specific planned flight dates for either our VSS Unity or VMS Eve test flights,” Virgin Galactic said in today’s update.

All of which means Alan Stern – and hundreds of other potential spacefliers who have signed up for trips on SpaceShipTwo – will probably be watching their e-mailbox (and Virgin Galactic’s Twitter account) very closely in the weeks to come.

Update for 5:49 p.m. PT: I’ve revised this report to make clear that Stern won’t be aboard SpaceShipTwo during its next test flight to space in New Mexico – though I’m betting he’d like to be. 

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GeekWire

Blue Origin rocket tests NASA’s moon landing system

Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceship today conducted a robotic rehearsal for a future touchdown on the moon — and by all appearances, it stuck the landing.

Testing most of the elements of NASA’s precision lunar landing system was the top item on the agenda for today’s mission, which represented the 13th uncrewed test flight of a New Shepard spacecraft for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture.

New Shepard’s flight had initially been scheduled for Sept. 24, but the launch was scrubbed due to a potential issue with the power supply for one of the 12 commercial payloads on board. It took more than two weeks for Blue Origin to resolve all the technical issues.

New Shepard’s reusable booster blasted off from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas at 8:37 a.m. CT (6:37 a.m. PT), sending a capsule stuffed with scientific experiments at a maximum speed of 2,232 mph to an altitude in excess of 65 miles (346,964 feet, or 105 kilometers). That’s beyond the 100-kilometer level that marks the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Toward the top of the ride, the capsule separated and floated back down to the Texas desert at the end of a parachute. Meanwhile, the booster made a supersonic descent. Just before landing, the booster relit its hydrogen-fueled engine in retro-rocket mode to fly itself autonomously to its landing pad for a record seventh time.

“That never gets old to watch that rocket,” launch commentator Caitlin Dietrich said from Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash. “It almost looks fake, every single time.”

The flight took just over 10 minutes, from liftoff to the capsule’s touchdown.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin hits reset for suborbital spaceship’s test

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is now targeting Oct. 13 for the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed mission to the edge of space and back, to try out a precision landing system for NASA.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas is scheduled for no earlier than 8:35 a.m. CT (6:35 a.m. PT).

A webcast is due to go live at Blue Origin’s website 30 minutes before launch, but there’s always a chance of delays due to weather or technical issues. That was the case more than two weeks ago when Blue Origin postponed the launch. At first, the launch team had to wait for cloudy weather to clear up, and then Blue Origin detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. A day later, Blue Origin tweeted that engineers would be taking extra time to make sure that all the technical issues were fully resolved.

The time frame for launch now extends to Nov. 1, according to an application filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

It’s been 10 months since Blue Origin last launched its New Shepard spaceship, which is designed to carry scientific payloads — and eventually, passengers as well. This 13th uncrewed test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin gets set for launch with COVID-19 in mind

Update for 6:45 a.m. PT Sept. 25: Blue Origin called off the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for the second day in a row. “We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly,” the company said today in a tweet.

The previous day’s postponement was due to a “potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” Blue Origin tweeted at the time. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.

We’ll update this report when a new launch date is set.

Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Liftoff will take place at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

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GeekWire

These paintings will get a finishing touch in space

Uplift Aerospace and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket venture plan to put paintings where virtually no art has gone before: on the side of a rocket ship.

The “canvases” for these works are exterior panels that will be mounted on Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spaceship, sent to the space frontier during an uncrewed test flight, then returned to Earth for delivery to the paintings’ purchasers.

Two Utah artists known for their realist and surrealist paintings — Jeff Hein and Mark R. Pugh — will come up with creations that are meant to weather the aerodynamically challenging ascent and descent through the atmosphere. Uplift Aerospace has conducted tests to ensure that the paint’s adhesion, integrity and relative coloration will endure the rigors of space travel. But the tests also suggest that the trip will alter the art. And that’s OK.

“The Mona Lisa would not move today’s viewer quite so poignantly without the telltale signs of its now centuries-old story and its emergence from the brush of a Renaissance master,” Dakota Bradshaw, a museum specialist who’s associated with the project, said in a news release. “Journey and story will also leave a unique and indelible mark on Uplift Aerospace’s first artwork to return from space travel.”

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GeekWire

NASA makes plans for astronauts to go suborbital

NASA says it’ll formulate a plan to assess the safety of suborbital spacecraft — such as Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship or Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane — so that astronauts, researchers and other space agency personnel can be cleared for takeoff.

Today’s announcement, and the release of an official request for information, follows through on hints about the plan that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine dropped last week.

The effort will be spearheaded by a suborbital crew office within NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which has been overseeing the development of SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft for orbital trips to and from the International Space Station.

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GeekWire

NASA gets set to put astronauts on suborbital flights

Beth Moses
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, exults over the view out the window of the company’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane during a suborbital spaceflight in February 2019. (Virgin Galactic Photo)

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine signaled today that astronauts would soon be cleared to take suborbital spaceflights aboard the commercial rocket ships being tested by Virgin Galactic and by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

“NASA is developing the process to fly astronauts on commercial suborbital spacecraft,” Bridenstine said in a tweet. “Whether it’s suborbital, orbital or deep space, NASA will utilize our nation’s innovative commercial capabilities.”

Bridenstine said the details will be laid out in a request for information to be released next week.

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GeekWire

Suborbital spacefliers will get pinned

Beth Moses gets pinned
Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut trainer, Beth Moses, gets her suborbital spaceflier pin from Michael Lopez-Alegria of the Association of Space Explorers. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Will the customers who fly on the suborbital spaceships operated by British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin get astronaut wings? That’s not in the cards, because those wings are typically reserved for flight crews. But at least they’ll get a lapel pin to mark their achievement.

The pin, created by the Association of Space Explorers, made its debut today on the lapel of Beth Moses, chief astronaut instructor at Virgin Galactic. She was pinned here at the International Astronautical Congress by former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the association’s president.

Moses already has her commercial astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration, by virtue of her trip beyond the 50-mile mark in February as a crew member aboard Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity rocket plane. But she’s glad to have the pin as well.

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GeekWire

NASA picks 25 space technologies for testing

Suborbital rocket ships
Three of the vehicles to be used for testing space technologies are Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship and Masten Space Systems’ lander vehicle. (Virgin Galactic / Blue Origin / Masten via NASA)

NASA’s Flight Opportunities program has selected 25 promising space technologies for testing aboard aircraft, high-altitude balloons and suborbital rocket ships — including Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft.

Blue Origin, the space venture created by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent, Wash., will be involved in testing 11 of the technologies. The company has been providing flights for suborbital space experiments since 2016 at its West Texas spaceport.

The latest projects were selected as part of NASA’s Tech Flights solicitation. Awardees typically receive a grant or enter into a cost-sharing agreement through which they can select a commercial flight provider that meets the requirements for their payload.

“With vibrant and growing interest in exploration and commercial space across the country, our goal with these selections is to support innovators from industry and academia who are using rapid and affordable commercial opportunities to test their technologies in space,” Christopher Baker, program executive for Flight Opportunities at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release.

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