Blue Origin Just Launched New Shepard in Its First 'Astronaut Rehearsal'

Blue Origin wants to be the second private space firm to launch humans into orbit.
Chris Young

Blue Origin just launched its New Shepard spacecraft system on Wednesday, April 14, at 12:51 PM EDT, from its launch site in West Texas, near the town of Van Horn. The launch streamed live on Blue Origin's YouTube channel (featured below).

The maximum ascent velocity was 2,247 mph (3,615 km/h), flying to an altitude of 348,753 feet (106,021 m) — for a total flight time of 10 minutes, 27 seconds.

This marks the company's 15th launch of its New Shepard spacecraft — which served as an "astronaut rehearsal" in an important step towards flying humans to suborbital space for the Jeff Bezos-founded private space enterprise.

Blue Origin 'stand-in astronauts' to perform test exit of crew capsule

After the successful touch-down of Blue Origin's crew capsule, astronauts approached the vessel, to open the hatch and practice for the real thing. Once opened, real astronauts will climb in and practice rapidly exiting — to collect data and familiarize all scientists, engineers, and astronauts involved with the exit strategy once a real crew launches and lands.

Blue Origin's New Shepard spacecraft and crew capsule both land successfully

Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle successfully landed on its landing pad at 12:57 PM EDT after a clockwork liftoff, following several delays. Minutes later, the crew vehicle with a human mannequin inside also landed — after deploying parachutes.

The capsule touched down at 12:59 PM EDT.

Blue Origin's 'Astronaut Rehearsal' launch was successful

Though the NS-15 test flight didn't have a human crew onboard, Blue Origin aimed to test personnel — standing in as astronauts by entering the capsule before and after the flight.

Before launch, the astronauts climbed the launch tower, buckled themselves into their seats, and conducted communications tests by sending messages via the spacecraft's Capsule Communications (CAPCOM) in the command center.

Six astronaut stand-ins climbed the tower, though only two individuals actually entered the spacecraft, whose hatch was not fully sealed during the rehearsal part of the pre-launch procedures.

This because the other seats were taken up by boxes of postcards from Blue Origin-founded nonprofit Club for Future, as well as the rather humorously named mannequin Mannequin Skywalker, who stood in for humans for the entirety of the launch.

Mannequin Skywalker resize md
Mannequin Skywalker aboard the NS-14 launch vehicle. Source: Blue Origin/YouTube

The launch countdown was put on hold several times as the stand-ins carried out several steps of the rehearsal. Though the tower operations team closed the capsule hatch with the astronaut stand-ins inside, the individuals left the reusable vehicle before launch.

Once the New Shepard rocket returns to Earth, the same "astronauts" will enter the capsule once again to rehearse the hatch opening.

Blue Origin aims to lift humans into space

Blue Origin's New Shepard booster and capsule system was originally devised in the mid-2000s with suborbital space tourism in mind. The first flight of the company's rival to SpaceX's Falcon Heavy, the New Glenn orbital rocket, was recently delayed to the fourth quarter of 2022.

The New Shepard vehicle's 14th test flight, NS-14, took place in January and was the first time the company tested its redesigned six-seater crew capsule. At the time of that unveiling, NBC News explained that Blue Origin was hoping to conduct its first human spaceflight in early April. Though that didn't happen, this mission brings Blue Origin one step closer to becoming the second private enterprise, after SpaceX, to send astronauts into orbit.