Blue Origin To Test Human Spaceflight Capabilities With NS-14 Mission Tomorrow

Ramish Zafar
Blue Origin's BE-3 engine used by the New Shepard during its thrust chamber testing at NASA's Stennis Space Center in 2012. Image: Blue Origin

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Kent, Washington based aerospace manufacturer Blue Origin has set a launch date for its New Shepard rocket's fourteenth launch today. The rocket is a sub-orbital vehicle that is capable of relanding vertically on land, and the NS-14 mission follows the vehicle's thirteenth mission that took place in October last year. The launch intends to test the company's capsule designed for human spaceflight, with Blue Origin flying a dummy called Mannequin Skywalker to simulate the effects of future flights on astronauts.

Blue Origin's Upcoming Flight Should Mark First Test Of Its Fourth Generation New Shepard Rocket

Blue is one of the three entities that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has selected to build a lunar lander as part of the agency's Artemis program. The Artemis program aims to return the United States to the lunar soil and establish a presence there to advance science, gather resources and set the agency up for Mars missions.

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The New Shepard's previous flight aimed to test landing capabilities for the Human Landing System - NASA's official term for the aforementioned lunar landers. Blue Origin tested these capabilities by studying how images of the landing surface worked with the vehicle as a whole, as the New Shepard also generated data about the landing by using sensors such as Light Detection and Ranging (LiDar) sensors.

Its upcoming flight, set to take tomorrow will also mirror Blue Origin's plans for its Integrated Landing Vehicle (ILV), which is its, Lockheed Martin Corporation and Northrop Grumman Corporation's (collectively referred to as the National Team)proposed design for NASA's moon landers. The ILV is built in three stages, with Blue responsible for the descent element, Lockheed responsible for the ascent element and Grumman responsible for the in-space transfer element which might even work with NASA's proposed Lunar Gateway should the project go through.

The New Shepard variant responsible for passenger flight is the fourth variant (New Shepard 4) of the rocket, with the company also hoping to take private passengers to the skies with the vehicle.

The National Team's Integrated Landing Vehicle's engineering mockup for crew interaction testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center in August 2020. Image: Blue Origin

Some of the upgrades that the New Shepard's crew capsule will feature include those for thermal regulation, environmental control. crew displays, microphones and speakers. Furthermore, the capsule will also feature six seats, and out of these, Mannequin will occupy one.

The National Team delivered a lunar lander mockup to NASA in August last year, with the prototype aimed towards testing crew integration. It did not consist of all of the elements of the ILV, with only the ascent and descent elements being present, and at the time Blue Origin's vice president of advanced development programs Mr. Bren Sherwood stated that the company would refine the vehicle's design once testing was complete.

Blue Origin was followed by Dynetics, another one of the three NASA awardees who delivered its mockup to the space agency in September. Dynetics proposal was highly rated by NASA during the selection process, and the company delivered what it dubbed as the 'Low Fidelity Test Article'. This intended to refine the various component placements inside the capsule in partnership with NASA astronaut Colonel Lee Archambault, which will determine the correct positioning and sizes of the vehicle's different components.

The ILV's ascent element is based on Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander that its chief executive officer Mr. Jeff Bezos showed off a couple of years back. The Blue Moon uses the company's BE-7 dual-expander cycle Liquid Oxygen/Hydrogen rocket engine that Blue Origin has designed specifically for lunar descent.

NASA's third HLS awardee, SpaceX, intends to use a variant of its upper stage Starship crew capsule/payload fairing for the program. This variant will feature different thrusters and no fins, and SpaceX's C.E.O. Mr. Elon Musk exhibited confidence in his company's ability to pull off the lander within two or three years last year.

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