Blue Origin Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has revealed that when the New Shepard suborbital launch system takes to the skies later this month, the unmanned crew capsule won't come floating gently back to Earth. Instead, like a series of tests conducted by NASA on the Orion space capsule, the flight engineers plan to create a controlled parachute failure to test the emergency systems designed to protect the crew in the event of such a scenario.

In a statement today, Bezos alluded to the Apollo 15 mission in 1971 when one of the Command Module's three parachutes failed to deploy properly during its return to Earth, causing a harder than expected landing in the Pacific Ocean. Parachute failures are one thing that can turn an otherwise perfectly successful mission into a debris-filled hole in the ground, so Blue Origin has developed a number of redundant systems to avoid or minimize damage in such an event.

According to Bezos, the fourth New Shepard flight reusing the same launch vehicle and unmanned capsule will be a demonstration flight to show the reusability and predictability of the launch system, as well as testing the pre-planned flight control maneuvers of the booster, the fin deflectors on the capsule, the thrust vector controls, and the reaction control system. During the descent stage when the capsule separates from the launch vehicle, a drogue chute and one of the three main chutes will be made to deliberately fail about seven and a half minutes into the flight at an altitude of 24,000 ft (7,315 m).

Like the Apollo Command Module, the New Shepard capsule uses a redundant set of three parachutes as insurance against one or more failing. This is backed up by a retrorocket system that fires just before touchdown to reduce the capsule's velocity to about 3 ft/s (0.9 m/s) on landing. In addition, the capsule has a two-stage crushable structure like the crumple zone on a motor car for absorbing impacts, and the seats have passive energy absorbers to help protect the passengers.

The flight date has yet to be announced.

Blue Origin
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