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How Blue Origin’s New Shepard will keep passengers safe in case of a crash

Blue Origin will intentionally crash-land its New Shepard rocket during an upcoming test flight, to see if the vehicle can still keep people safe when its parachutes don’t work. The company claims anyone aboard the spacecraft should be fine if the parachutes fail. But for further protection, New Shepard has other failsafes that will help keep people alive during a botched landing, according to a new email from CEO Jeff Bezos.

These safety features will be tested out on the next test flight

Bezos claimed that these safety features will be tested out on the next test flight, along with the failed parachutes. “We’re planning to demonstrate the redundancies built into the capsule on this re-flight of the [New Shepard] vehicle,” wrote Bezos in an email. He was less specific about when the test flight will occur, saying only that the New Shepard will fly “before the end of the month.”

Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a reusable rocket designed to take passengers up to 62 miles above the Earth’s surface, where they can experience a few minutes of weightlessness. Passengers travel inside a crew capsule that sits atop the rocket. Once in space, the capsule and the rocket separate. Both eventually fall back to Earth. The rocket lands upright by reigniting its engines and lowering itself down to solid ground. The capsule carrying the passengers deploys a series of parachutes to slow its fall and touch down gently.

Blue Origin doesn’t expect any of these parachutes to fail during flight, but engineers typically like to have backup plans when it comes to protecting human life. So the company wants to see how the capsule will fare if some parachutes don’t deploy. During the next flight test, one of the main parachutes will fail during landing, as well as one of the smaller chutes that helps to stabilize the capsule during its fall. Bezos said the parachutes will fail about seven-and-a-half minutes into flight, when the capsule is 24,000 feet above Earth.

After the failure, the crew capsule’s other backup systems will be put to the test. First, the capsule is equipped with small engines called retro-rockets that ignite when the vehicle is just a few feet above the ground. These rockets push against the Earth’s surface, reducing the speed of the spacecraft. The capsule also has a “crushable structure” that can absorb some of the force of impact; the seats are designed to absorb energy, so that passengers feel as comfortable as possible during landing.

For this test flight, Blue Origin plans to use the same New Shepard vehicle that the company has launched and landed three times before. Blue Origin plans to start crewed test flights of the vehicle next year. Paying customers could start riding as soon as 2018.


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