After a number of delays Sunday morning, ablasted off from the west Texas desert just after noon Central Daylight Time, sending a crew capsule carrying a dummy named “Mannequin Skywalker” on a brief trip to space.
For the eighth time, Jeff Bezos’ commercial space company successfully tested the system it hopes to use to send paying passengers on suborbital flights in the coming months.
The spacecraft reached an altitude of 350,000 feet (106,680 meters), or about 5 percent higher than previous New Shepard test flights. That height sent the rocket beyond the internationally accepted boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and space, called the Karman Line.
Touchdown of the New Shepard Booster and Crew Capsule! Congrats to Team Blue and our payload customers on board today!
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) April 29, 2018
The goal was to “push the system a little bit harder,” according to launch webcast host Ariane Cornell, who also works on business development for Blue Origin.
The blastoff came about three and a half hours after the opening of the launch window Sunday morning, following delays due to weather and a handful of other holds for unspecified reasons. The liftoff finally came at 12:06 p.m. local time.
The New Shepard spacecraft that blasted off from Blue Origin’s west Texas test facility is actually a reused rocket and capsule, so Bezos’ company now joins.
Blue Origin’s plans for its rockets in the near term are a little different than what Musk and SpaceX have been doing with Falcon 9, and now, in recent years. While those rockets have been busy launching commercial satellites and sending cargo to the International Space Station, New Shepard is designed to lift human passengers to visit space, perhaps as soon as the end of this year.
Sunday’s New Shepard flight was the first to test a crew capsule equipped with acrylic windows. However, instead of paying space tourists, Mannequin Skywalker was the only face peering out of those panels.
A handful of experimental payloads also joined the dummy for the flight, including new sensors sent by NASA, a demonstration of a system to provide Wi-Fi in space and an experiment packed with “water fleas” to record the impact of microgravity on the tiny invertebrates.
Several minutes after launch, the rocket landed safely at a nearby pad and three large parachutes slowed the crew capsule’s fall back to Earth to around 20 mph (32 km/h). Just before hitting the desert floor, retrothrusters on the bottom of the capsule fired to provide a soft landing.
There’s been no word yet on the condition of Mannequin Skywalker or the water fleas.