When it comes to spacecraft that may take the place of the now-defunct space shuttle, it would probably be fair to say that most people probably think of the SpaceX Dragon. It’s sometimes easy to forget, however, that SpaceX is a private company, competing against others for NASA’s business. One of those competitors is Washington state-based Blue Origin, established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (SpaceX was co-founded by Elon Musk, of PayPal fame). Although the company has been rather secretive about the space vehicle that it’s developing, it recently announced that the design has done well in a series of wind tunnel tests.
Over 180 tests were performed at Lockheed Martin’s High Speed Wind Tunnel Facility in Dallas, as part of Blue Origin’s involvement with NASA’s Commercial Crew Development program.
A scale model of the reusable spacecraft – which is so far being referred to simply as the Space Vehicle – was used to test its aerodynamics during descent through the atmosphere, and its ability to change its return flight path. Being able to do so would reportedly increase the number of possible landing spots, which would in turn boost its emergency return capability.
The vehicle has a biconic shape, meaning that it resembles two cones placed base-to-base. According to company president Rob Meyerson, this allows it to have more interior volume than traditional capsules. He added that it also doesn’t have the weight penalties of winged spacecraft.
Later this year, Blue Origin plans to test its pusher escape system, which would allow a separate crew capsule to be steered using a thrust vector control system. Tests are also scheduled for the thrust chamber assembly of the company's BE-3 100,000 ft-lb (135,582 NM) liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen rocket engine – the assembly was recently installed on a test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center.
Ultimately, the Space Vehicle is intended to transport as many as seven astronauts into low-Earth orbit, and the International Space Station. Like the Dragon, it would achieve orbit via a reusable launch vehicle. The company is also developing a sub-orbital vehicle, called the New Shepard.