Bezos' Blue Origin set for 12th test flight of New Shepard spacecraft

By William Harwood

/ CBS News

Blue Origin, the ambitious space company owned by Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos, readied a reusable New Shepard rocket and capsule for launch Tuesday, the 12th in a series of unpiloted test flights before the sub-orbital craft begins carrying paying customers on brief forays into space.

The hydrogen-fueled New Shepard was scheduled for liftoff from Blue Origin's west Texas flight facility at 11:30 a.m. EST, two hours later than originally planned because of light rain and clouds in the area. In a tweet Monday, the company said the weather was "not as favorable as we'd like, but we're continuing to keep an eye on the forecast."

Assuming clearance to fly, the New Shepard's BE-3 engine will propel the capsule to a velocity of more than three times the speed of sound, releasing the ship on a ballistic trajectory that will carry it to an altitude above 60 miles.

NS-12 Live Webcast by Blue Origin on YouTube

NASA, the Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration consider 50 miles the "boundary" between the discernible atmosphere and space while the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, an international governing body for aviation-related sports and records, puts the threshold at 100 kilometers, or 62 miles.

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The New Shepard capsule was designed to exceed both of those standards. Arcing over and falling back to Earth, on-board experiments — and, eventually, people — will experience about five minutes of weightlessness before the capsule plunges back into the thick lower atmosphere, descending to a gentle walking-pace touchdown under three large parachutes.

A file photo of a Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft blasting off from West Texas on an earlier sub-orbital test flight. Blue Origin

"As we move towards verifying New Shepard for human spaceflight we are continuing to mature the safety and reliability of the vehicle," Blue Origin said in a news release.

The booster for this week's launch will be making its sixth flight in a row. After releasing the New Shepard capsule to soar into space on its own, the booster, falling tail first back to Earth, was programmed to deploy braking fins, restart its engine and unfold landing legs as it neared the ground, settling to touchdown on a concrete pad near the launch gantry.

For New Shepard's 12th test flight, on-board payloads included a NASA experiment to test techniques for using gas mixtures from "common waste" on deep space missions to provide propulsion or life support. Another experiment, built by students at Columbia University, was designed to study the impacts of microgravity on cell biology.

Also on board: two art projects by winners of a competition open to high school and middle school students and thousands of postcards submitted by young people around the world as part of Blue Origin's "Club for the Future," a non profit intended to help motivate students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

First published on December 10, 2019 / 9:09 AM

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William Harwood headshots_William_Harwood.jpg

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 covered 129 space 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."