After weather delay, Blue Origin counts down to test flight of suborbital spaceship

By Alan Boyle | GeekWire

Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster touches down after a test flight in 2017. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is counting down to today’s uncrewed flight test of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship, with a cargo manifest that should warm kids’ hearts for the holidays.

The company plans to fly thousands of postcards that have been gathered through its educational program, known as the Club for the Future. It’ll also send up two student-built art projects inspired by OK Go’s geeky music videos.

This will be the 12th New Shepard test mission, and it will mark the flight of Blue Origin’s 100th commercial payload to space and back.

Launch from Blue Origin’s West Texas spaceport was originally set for Tuesday, but had to be postponed for a day due to weather concerns. After waiting for thefog to clear, the company reset the scheduled launch time to 11:43 a.m. CT (9:43 a.m. PT). Video coverage is available via Blue Origin’s website and on YouTube:

Bezos kicked off the Club for the Future program in May, when he unveiled Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, D.C. Ever since then, Blue Origin has been collecting “Space Mail” postcards, on which kids can draw or write up their vision for having millions of people living and working in space.

In August, Bezos reported that postcards have been received from 22 countries. “I’ve seen the messages, and they are so hopeful and inspiring,” he said on Instagram.

The postcards will go up to space and come back down on New Shepard. Then they’ll be mailed back to their original senders.

Another kid-friendly payload consists of two experiments that emerged as the winners of an “Art in Space” contest sponsored by OK Go. One project, devised by a trio of New York City students, aims to have bits of material rise up in zero-G and cover a magnetized wire-art sculpture, mimicking the process of primordial planetary accretion. The other project, proposed by students from Utah, aims to translate cosmic radiation readings recorded during New Shepard’s flight into a musical composition.

Blue Origin took note of two other payloads: a science experiment focusing on zero-G’s impact on cell biology, developed at Columbia University with guidance from former NASA astronaut Mike Massimino; and an experiment from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that will test a technology for converting trash and human waste into a mixture of gases that could be used for propulsion or life support.

The main objective of the upcoming flight is to test New Shepard’s reusable propulsion module and crew capsule in advance of flights with people on board. The most recent uncrewed trip took place in May.

New Shepard is expected to start carrying people to heights beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles) sometime next year. 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, but Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith recently said they’d be in the range of hundreds of thousands of dollars to start.

In addition to the New Shepard suborbital space program and the Blue Moon lunar lander program, Blue Origin is 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 is being dramatically expanded. Eventually, BE-4 production will shift to Alabama, and New Glenn will be assembled in and launched from Florida.

This report was originally published at 2:45 p.m. PT Dec. 8, and has since been updated with the latest launch report and other details.

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