Watch Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin test the last-ditch escape system on its tourist spacecraft

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Jeff Bezos is promising a show today (Oct. 5) as his space-flight startup Blue Origin demonstrates a rocket-powered escape system, designed to provide maximum safety to future passengers.

After several delays during the countdown, the test came off without a hitch, as you can see in this video below:

His company’s reusable New Shepard rocket is designed to carry a six-passenger space capsule to altitudes just above 100 kilometers, where space begins.

Like most launch vehicles, Blue Origin’s rocket booster, loaded with propellant and engines, is designed to separate from the capsule at just the right time to sling into space. But what if something goes wrong between launch and that time? That’s what we’ll find out when the company tests its launch escape system.

A successful test would confirm that if something goes wrong with the rocket during flight, the passengers could escape disaster.

The rocket, which has already flown four times, will take off normally. After about 45 seconds of flight, when the rocket is nearly 16,000 feet in the air, the capsule will be commanded to break free of the booster and, if all goes well, use its own motor to fly to safety before deploying parachutes to bring it safely back to Earth.

The booster would most likely be destroyed in the process, slammed, as Bezos described it in a recent blog post, with “70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust.” This no doubt complicates the already tricky process of landing a rocket back on Earth. But Bezos notes that there’s a small chance it could survive.

“If the booster does manage to survive this flight—its fifth—we will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum,” the Amazon founder and billionaire wrote in an update. “In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered, and its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive.”

Escape systems have been built into rockets since the earliest days of manned spaceflight. Both the Mercury and Apollo spacecraft used rocket “towers” on top of the capsules for this purpose, but as Bezos notes, these systems must be jettisoned during flight for the capsule to deploy its parachutes, which can create complications.

The Apollo crew capsule escape rocket is tested in 1965.
The Apollo crew capsule escape rocket is tested in 1965.
Image: NASA

That led Blue Origin to choose an internal rocket motor for its escape system, which it tested in 2013. Today’s test will essentially replicate this effort, but during an actual rocket flight.

Blue Origin’s competitors have demonstrated similar systems for their rockets. SpaceX’s Dragon II space capsule used 3D-printed rocket motors to demonstrate last year how to escape from tricky situations, and Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is expected to test its own internal escape system sometime in 2017.

SpaceX's Dragon II demonstrates its launch escape system in 2015.
SpaceX’s Dragon II demonstrates its launch escape system in 2015.
Image: SpaceX

SpaceX has yet to demonstrate its escape system during flight, but founder Elon Musk has said that it likely would have been sufficient to save the cargo that was destroyed during a failed 2015 mission to the International Space Station.

For Blue Origin, a successful test would be another step forward in bringing the long-stealthy rocket startup into the public eye. The company has not said when it will start offering seats on its rocket to paying customers, nor how much it will cost.

But the company has staked out larger ambitions in recent months, beginning construction of a new factory in Florida and outlining plans for an enormous new rocket called “New Glenn.”