Blue Origin’s Suborbital Flight Test
They accomplished a historic flight in many, many ways, just not in the way that they claimed. I don’t blame the engineers, they did great.
Let me tell you what suborbital means. It means that your payload goes up, then comes right back down and doesn’t reach orbit.
Orbit means that your payload doesn’t go vertical so much as it goes horizontal very, very fast until the curvature of the planet curves away from it at more or less the same rate of speed that your payload falls, such that it falls and falls and falls but never catches up with the ground.
Both are different paths of ballistic flight in that they both fall until or unless stopped by the ground or something.
The Space Shuttle did orbital flights, it dropped off the expended solid rocket boosters before reaching orbit. It dropped off the empty external tank before reaching stable orbit, but we call the entire flight event an “orbital” launch and the system, solids, tank, and all, an orbital launch system.
The International Space Station orbits Earth, and the SpaceX Dragon capsule joins it there to deliver cargo. The Falcon 9 rocket sends it to orbit, and that makes the first stage and second stage of the Falcon 9 an orbital rocket. Even though the first stage booster never actually reaches orbit itself, it is the first step of an orbital package. SpaceX does this at a monopoly killing, new opportunity building, never before matched price that it wants to cut even further by landing and reusing the booster stage.
Blue Origin‘s Shepard test rocket flies very high, but it was designed and intended to fly suborbital. It flies very fast but cannot fly anywhere near orbital speeds. It’s payload, a test article of a planned human rated space tourism capsule, did not reach orbit, was not intended to reach orbit, and likely isn’t even designed to reenter the atmosphere at orbital speed without burning up. It goes up and comes right back down again and that makes its test flight a suborbital test flight and its rocket a suborbital rocket.
Let me be clear. That teenie-wheenie rocket couldn’t even boost your cat into orbit. I don’t pretend to know more than Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos or his engineers. They know all about what I just told you and great as it was, it was over-stated. For Jeff Bezos to compare it to the failed landings of Falcon 9 is unfair. If they’d been honest with you about where that flight fit in the scheme of things I’d have nothing but praise for their successful launch and landings.
What’s the difference you ask? A lot.
Are both boosters going the same speed when the engines shut off? No, but for the purposes of this discussion it wouldn’t matter if they did.
Moving an object to orbital speed takes a lot more fuel. That fuel load is divided between two rockets and all the fuel for the launch, plus both the rockets, plus the payload, all have to be put into flight from a dead stop by the first stage. So the first stage has to be huge! Huge things without wings fly like rocks and bigger rocks take a lot more time and energy to slow, steer, stop and stabilize and you have to do a whole lot of all of those things to bring a booster back to a dead stop at the correct time, place, and angle to keep it from crashing and turning itself and everything in its immediate vicinity into an epic explosion.
As for that capsule, did you see how hard it hit! The look on that cartoon character’s face wasn’t wonder or awe, it was sheer terror! Good thing the capsule wasn’t really occupied. In fact, I’d be willing to bet that it wasn’t even occupiable. It would need a launch abort system of some kind, redundant life support systems and some way of softening the impact with the ground besides just parachutes because we are delicate creatures and break easily. Blue Origin’s went a lot higher than a weather balloon though, but in every other meaningful way their capsule appears to have accomplished little more than the many “capsules” that have been built in folks’ garages recently. Like this one…
I wonder if Jeff Bezos had his iPhone onboard.
I know…that was an unfair comparison, but if billionaire Jeff Bezos can do it, so can I. 😉
It was all kinds of cool. When SpaceX lands an orbital booster next year sometime, this event combined with that one will put the question of recoverable boosters to bed forever. Then we all get to ask OldSpace, “How come you’ve made us buy you new rockets after every launch? Is crashing them into the ocean after every flight all you’ve learned how to do in the past 50 years?”
Until then Blue Origin can bask in the glory while SpaceX wishs they’d inspected their support struts better and flown the thirteen flights in twelve months they’d planned on flying going into 2015. If they had, then I’m quite sure we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
Blue Origin intends on expanding this success by building a true orbital vehicle. I look forward to writing nicer things about their many accomplishments. Go BLUE!