Blue Origin launches artwork and research payloads into space

A month after launching company founder Jeff Bezos into space, Blue Origin fired off another New Shepard suborbital spacecraft Thursday. This time, it was carrying NASA lunar landing technology and 18 other research payloads.

The capsule also featured three portraits by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo that were attached to the ship’s parachute covers. Working with special paints to withstand the stresses of spaceflight, the portraits represented the artist’s mother, the mother of a childhood friend and himself.

“A self-portrait looking up to the skies best explains what this project means to me,” Boafo said in a statement. “I grew up knowing the sky was the limit and now I get to work on a project that goes beyond the sky as we know it.”

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A Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft climbs away from the company’s west Texas flight test facility, kicking off the program’s 17th suborbital spaceflight. Blue Origin

The inaugural “Suborbital Triptych” was commissioned by Uplift Aerospace through the company’s “Uplift for Good” initiative, which donated to African health care charities chosen by Boafo.

“My mother has always been a backbone in shaping my dreams as an artist,” he said. “In Ghana, where I grew up, it is said that a mother’s love comes from a place ‘out of this world.’ These works are an ode to motherhood for there are not enough words that best describe a mother’s love and support.”

Blue Origin’s 17th New Shepard flight overall and its fourth so far this year got underway at 10:31 a.m. EDT when the capsule’s booster roared to life with a burst of flame, throttled up and quickly propelled the stubby rocket away from its west Texas launch site.

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The New Shepard capsule’s three parachute covers featured portraits painted by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo commissioned by Uplift Aerospace in partnership with Blue Origin. Uplift Aerospace

Blue Origin has two operational New Shepard capsules, one optimized for research payloads and the other for passengers. The passenger capsule carried Bezos and three crewmates on a suborbital trip to space during Blue Origin’s first crewed flight July 20. The next passenger flight is expected later this year.

“We’ve got another human flight coming on New Shepard really soon,” said launch commentator Kiah Erlich, Blue Origin’s director of astronaut and NASA sales. “Our astronaut manifest is filling up pretty fast. … We’re actually at nearly $100 million in seat sales. Just blown away by all the interest.”

Delayed nearly an hour by an unexplained technical issue and then by “payload readiness,” Thursday’s unpiloted flight appeared to go off without a hitch once the countdown hit zero.

Rapidly accelerating as it consumed propellants and lost weight, the hydrogen-fueled single-stage rocket fired for about two minutes and 20 seconds, pushing the capsule to a top speed of 2,232 mph at an altitude of about 190,000 feet.

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The capsule settles to a dusty, walking-pace touchdown 10 minutes after liftoff. Blue Origin

At that point, the New Shepard capsule was released to fly on its own, continuing upward on a ballistic trajectory that topped out at an altitude of 347,434 feet, or 65.8 miles, nearly 4 miles above the internationally recognized “boundary” of space.

The capsule was packed with 18 government, commercial and university-sponsored research payloads that took advantage of the three to four minutes of weightlessness the spacecraft experienced at the top of its trajectory.

The New Shepard Booster, meanwhile, fell back to Earth on its own, falling tail-first to a picture-perfect rocket-powered touchdown on a circular landing pad near the launch site.

Along the way, a suite of NASA instruments making their second flight measured the booster’s position and velocity as part of a project to develop high-precision lunar landing sensors for the agency’s Artemis moon program.

A few moments after the booster touched down, the New Shepard capsule, descending under the three big parachutes, settled to a dusty 5 mph touchdown, none the worse for its eighth flight to space.