Blue Origin Set to Launch New Shepard into Space

New Shepard lifts off from Launch Site One in West Texas with four humans on board on July 20. Blue Origin

A month after sending billionaire Jeff Bezos into space, Blue Origin is set to launch one of its New Shepard reusable rockets this week.

The New Shepard mission, also known as NS-17, will fly a NASA lunar landing technology demonstration, 18 commercial payloads inside the crew capsule—11 of which are NASA-supported—and an art installation.

Liftoff is scheduled for 9:35 a.m. EDT Wednesday from Launch Site One in West Texas. Live launch coverage will be shown at

This will be the 17th New Shepard mission, the fourth flight for the program in 2021, and the eighth flight for this particular vehicle, which is dedicated to flying scientific and research payloads to space and back. To date, New Shepard has flown more than 100 payloads to space across 11 flights.

It’s a different vehicle than the one that carried Bezos—founder of Blue Origin and Amazon—and three other passengers, including famed pilot Wally Funk, into a suborbital flight on July 20.

The Mission

As part of Wednesday’s mission, the NS-17 flight will test a suite of lunar landing technologies aimed at reducing risk and increasing confidence for successful missions to the moon, according to Blue Origin. The payload will fly mounted on the exterior of the New Shepard booster. It will be the second flight for this experiment.

Other experiments aboard the NS-17 flight include:

Carthage College: The Modal Propellant Gauging Experiment. The Modal Propellant Gauging experiment demonstrates a novel approach to measuring propellant levels in spacecraft propellant tanks in the microgravity environment of space.

NASA Kennedy Space Center: The Orbital Syngas / Commodity Augmentation Reactor (OSCAR). This aims to help transform common spaceflight waste products into useful resources, such as water and propellants. The system includes a steam generation stage and an oxygen supply stage that help process trash samples into useful gases.

Southwest Research Institute: Liquid Acquisition Device (LAD-3). LAD-3 demonstrates how liquid/vapor interfaces behave in microgravity. Applications include cryogenic propellant storage and management for in-space propulsion systems.

University of Florida: Biological Imaging in Support of Suborbital Science. By further calibrating and enhancing the way data is collected, the FLEX fluorescence imaging system experiment enables increasingly precise and dynamic biological research on suborbital missions.

The mission will also fly thousands of postcards from Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, whose mission is to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and to help invent the future of life in space.

In another unique move, the NS-17 flight will include an art installation by Ghanian artist Amoaka Boafo that features three portraits painted on top of the crew capsule on the main chute covers. The portraits are of Boafa’s mother, a friend’s mother and one of Boafa himself.

FAA Update

Wednesday’s launch will be the first under an updated license issued by the FAA in July.

It includes revisions to its 2017 license, which outline new financial responsibility requirements for Blue Origin. The FAA requires that an entity must be able to cover costs resulting from an incident, including what it calls maximum probable liability, for both pre-flight and in-flight operations. The amount was previously set at $75 million for Blue Origin, but under the revisions, it is now expected to cover up to $150 million. Additionally, the liability insurance was increased from $6 million to $75 million.

The revised license also changes the name of the launch location from “West Texas Launch Site” to “Launch Site One.”

Lawsuit Pending

The flight comes as tensions mount between Blue Origin and SpaceX.

In April, NASA awarded a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, to design a lunar craft that could carry astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program landed there in 1969.

Blue Origin fired back at the announcement in July, releasing an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson on its website that states NASA did not provide the same opportunities to Blue Origin that it did SpaceX, giving it an unfair advantage in the final selection process.

The company also says NASA missed an opportunity in not allowing both companies to move forward together in the mission to the moon.

“NASA should embrace its original strategy of competition. Competition will prevent any single source from having insurmountable leverage over NASA,” the letter signed by Bezos states. “Without competition, a short time into the contract, NASA will find itself with limited options as it attempts to negotiate missed deadlines, design changes, and cost overruns.

“Without competition, NASA’s short-term and long-term lunar ambitions will be delayed, will ultimately cost more, and won’t serve the national interest.”

Blue Origin filed an official complaint with the U.S. Government Accountability Office, in which it and another company based in Alabama claimed NASA unreasonably evaluated proposals. But the agency denied the request, saying NASA’s selection process was reasonable and that Blue Origin did not prove it would have, in fact, been awarded the contract under different circumstances.

The latest move came on August 13 when Bezos-backed Blue Origin filed a lawsuit against NASA in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, protesting its contract with SpaceX. In the suit, Blue Origin claims NASA was “unlawful and improper” in its evaluation of proposals. The court documents have been sealed, meaning details of the lawsuit are not available to the public.

NASA said last week it has paused work with SpaceX on the human landing system through November 1, according to Reuters.

Based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Meg is head of Digital Editorial Content, bringing 20 years of editorial experience in both digital and print to the Firecrown team. Follow Meg on Twitter @emdash13.

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