Blue Origin’s rocket ship sends postcards, science and art to outer space and back

New Shepard launch
A drone’s-eye view shows Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship blasting off from its West Texas launch pad. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Thousands of postcards, an array of science experiments and a couple of art projects took a suborbital ride to space today on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship, during a test flight aimed at blazing a trail for space travelers.

Today’s uncrewed flight was the 12th test mission for the New Shepard program, which is just one of the space initiatives being pursued by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture. It’s been seven months since the previous test flight in May.

Liftoff from Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility in West Texas came one day after weather concerns forced a postponement. Even today, the launch team had to wait for heavy fog to clear before sending up the 60-foot-tall reusable spacecraft at 11:53 a.m. CT (9:53 a.m. PT).

New Shepard’s booster sent its crew capsule to a height of 346,727 feet (105.7 kilometers), with a maximum ascent velocity of 2,222 mph. After separation, the booster guided itself back toward a landing pad, while the capsule unfurled its parachutes and made its own touchdown in the desert. The trip lasted 10 minutes from liftoff to touchdown.

“What a beautiful launch and landing from New Shepard this morning,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster comes in for a landing. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Blue Origin’s main objective was to test the launch system in preparation for flying people sometime next year. New Shepard’s crew capsule is designed to carry up to six passengers on a flight that features the biggest windows built into a commercial spacecraft.

No humans flew in the crew compartment today. “We’ve got a couple more flights before we get there,” Cornell said.

Instead, the capsule carried nearly two dozen payloads — including stacks of postcards provided to Blue Origin as part of its educational program, the Club for the Future. Back in May, Bezos kicked off a campaign to have kids write down or draw their vision for future space settlement on the cards, and send them in for inclusion on a spaceflight.

Cards were received from more than 20 countries, and they’ll be returned to senders in the wake of today’s flight. Bezos himself pulled a stack out of the New Shepard capsule and hand-stamped a few of the cards.

“That’s a success, guys,” he said.

Also on board were two art projects that were selected as winners in a contest organized with the support of OK Go, a geeky band that specializes in viral videos.

One project, devised by a trio of New York City students, called for bits of artistic “space debris” to float around in zero-G and attach themselves to a magnetized wire-art sculpture, evoking the process that led to the formation of planets in the early solar system.

The other project, suggested by a team of students in Utah, translated cosmic radiation readings recorded during the flight into a musical composition that was to be played on musical instruments inside the capsule — and recorded on video to create a sight-and-sound experience.

The results of both experiments will be given to the teams.

Yet another competition opened the way for high-school students from Bellevue, Wash., to have their art-plus-science project flown on New Shepard. The three members of Team Northern Lights attend Heritage Homeschool Co-op and are part of a “Running Start” educational program at Bellevue College.

Madelyn Heaston, Katja Kirchner and Aliah Haigh won top honors at a “Go For Launch” program that was organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Higher Orbits at Seattle’s Museum of Flight in January. Blue Origin flew their experiment as a reward.

“The goal of this experiment is to determine microgravity’s effect on creating art,” Haigh explained in a pre-launch news release. “It will test how the paint spreads onto the canvas, as well as how the three different colors mix.”

Less zany payloads were included on the mission as well, including:

  • A science experiment focusing on zero gravity’s impact on cell biology, developed at Columbia University with guidance from former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino.
  • An experiment from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that’s designed to test a technology for converting trash and human waste into a mixture of gases that could be used for propulsion or life support.
  • A project aimed at studying how the zero-G environment affects jellyfish behavior — specifically, the connection between their gravity-sensing system and their visual system.
  • An experiment from the University of Florida aimed at studying how Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant that’s widely used for research, adapts to zero gravity.
  • Samples of grape vine calluses, sent up by Space Cargo Unlimited to lay the groundwork for future experiments studying the space environment’s effects on agriculture.
  • An experiment from Carthage College that tried using acoustic vibrations to gauge the amount of fuel left in a spacecraft’s tank.

Blue Origin has been sending payloads on short trips to space and back on New Shepard spaceships since 2017. The company said its 100th commercial payload went up on today’s mission.

Today marked the sixth go-round for this particular booster and crew capsule, besting the five missions that were conducted with the previous set. One of the objectives of the New Shepard test program is to optimize the reusability of Blue Origin’s rocket hardware. The company says the next reusable spaceship, known as RSS First Step, will be the first version outfitted for crewed missions.

The first to fly are likely to be Blue Origin staffers. Paying passengers would follow, but the company hasn’t yet started taking reservations. Ticket prices are still up in the air: Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith recently said they’d be in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars to start.

Blue Origin is also working on an orbital-class New Glenn rocket that could start flying in 2021.

The hardware for New Shepard and for New Glenn’s BE-4 rocket engine are currently built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., which has been dramatically expanded. Eventually, BE-4 production will shift to Alabama, and New Glenn will be assembled in and launched from Florida.

Another program in Blue Origin’s portfolio is the Blue Moon lunar landing system. The company has partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper on a Blue Moon proposal that NASA is currently considering for use on crewed missions to the moon in 2024 and beyond. A decision on the next phase of that program could come as early as next month.

Bezos, who is considered the world’s richest individual, has said he’s spending a billion dollars a year on Blue Origin to further his vision of having millions of people living and working in space. Blue Origin’s workforce has grown to more than 2,500 employees, and is on track to reach 3,500 next year.

Update for 8:15 p.m. PT Dec. 11: We’ve tweaked the basic stats for today’s flight to reflect Blue Origin’s official figures, and added lots more details about the mission’s scientific payloads, including Bezos’ tweet.

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