Random Thoughts: New Shepard for Pop-Up TSTO NanoSat Launch

Blue Origin’s recent successful launch, recovery, and re-flight of their suborbital RLV New Shepard got me thinking about an idea that I came up with back in late November shortly after their first flight.

NS_InsertUpperStageHereIn an article written shortly after the first successful flight and recovery, Erika Wagner of Blue Origin mentioned an intriguing suggestion for a potential mission upgrade for future customers:

Down the road, Wagner said Blue Origin would offer a number of upgrades for research, including quick access to payloads shortly before launch and after landing, as well as hand-on control of experiments once the vehicle starts carrying people, something she later said was still a couple of years away. Blue Origin would even be open to replacing the entire crew capsule with a research payload. “If you have something that weighs 8,000 pounds and needs to get up to 100 kilometers, come talk to me,” she said.

This got me thinking about the possibility of replacing the capsule with an orbital payload and small upper-stage, and flying a Pop-up TSTO trajectory. Basically, the New Shepard booster would follow a similar trajectory to its current operations, but shortly after main engine shutdown, the upper stage would separate, and fire horizontally to accelerate to orbital velocity. So long as the upper stage had a sufficient T/W ratio, this would mean that the first stage will have covered all or almost all of the gravity/drag losses, meaning that the upper stage would only have to deliver ~7400m/s of delta-V to reach orbit.

While that’s a lot for a single stage, the stage would be operating entirely in vacuum. For a LOX/Kerosene stage with a conservative 320s vacuum Isp, that would require a pmf of ~92% to deliver a 100lb payload to LEO. For a LOX/LH2 stage with a conservative 440s vacuum Isp, you’d need about an 83% pmf. Both of those seem reasonably achievable for small pump-fed stages (possibly using electro-pumps such as those under development by Ventions or RocketLabs). With slightly more aggressive pmf/Isp assumptions (85% pmf and 450s Isp for the LOX/LH2, and 94% pmf/340s Isp for the LOX/Kero), you can get closer to 300lb payload. And if you don’t care about the added complexity of going to a 3STO system, with two expendable stages lofted by New Shepard, my numbers suggest you could probably push up into the 500-800lb paylaod range, assuming similar pmfs and Isps to the single expendable stage–though how you would exactly configure a 3STO to fit in anywhere near the same payload volume as the capsule is an open question.

Volume-wise, even the LOX/LH2 stage would likely fit within close to the same volume as the existing capsule–at typical O/F ratios, you would need about 10m^3 for the LOX/LH2 tankage, compared to 15m^3 of internal volume in the existing New Shepard capsule, with the LOX/Kerosene upper stage being even smaller. You might want to stretch the volume a little bit to provide more length for putting a payload on top, and you’d likely have some sort of fairing to surround the upper stage and payload on the way up, but neither of those seem like show-stoppers.

It would be interesting to see how the economics of such a NLV compared with others in its class. Blue Origin didn’t give a price for replacing the capsule, but if they have six paying passengers at $200k each (comparable prices to what VG has been claiming for a while), that would imply a price per flight of <$1M for the first stage, possibly as low as $500-600k.

I wonder if Blue Origin is already thinking about something like this themselves, or if they aren’t personally interested, if they’d be willing to partner with another company to do something like this. Food for thought.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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32 Responses to Random Thoughts: New Shepard for Pop-Up TSTO NanoSat Launch

  1. Robert Clark says:

    Might work with the hydrolox upper stage of the Ariane 4, the Ariane H10-3:

    Would need to slightly upgrade the BE-3 thrust so it could loft the additional weight of the upper stage. This should doable. For instance the SSME’s could operate at 109% of their originally rated thrust, and the Merlin 1D had a 15% thrust upgrade.

    I estimate this two-stage rocket might be able to do ca. 1 to 2 metric tons to LEO. This is based on a 360 s estimated vacuum ISP of the BE-3. For this ISP estimate see here where I give a payload estimate of a triple-cored New Shepard:


    Bob Clark

  2. Pug Sanchez says:

    Neat idea, Jon. For the uninitiated, what is an NLV? I don’t think I’ve encountered that acronym before.

  3. Pingback: Just Space News / Random Thoughts: New Shepard for Pop-Up TSTO NanoSat Launch

  4. Ben says:

    David Weinshenker posted this thought to Arocket a few times in the last decade. Though his was a bit more difficult to achieve, because he was base lining a commercial service of 100kg to 100km as promised by some upstart Mojave vtvl company…

  5. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I was talking about using the NS booster unmodified and just replacing the capsule. Sure, it’s not optimized, but the point is to get a useful capability quickly that leverages the same vehicle they’re using for suborbital space tourism and research flights.


  6. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    NLV = Nanosat Launch Vehicle

  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Yeah this idea is far from original, but NS definitely seems like an easier rocket to apply the idea to. 8000lb gives you more room to work with, and it’s already designed to stage a big payload.

  8. Dave Salt says:

    An interesting thought, Jon… it reminds me of the original Kistler concept that used a Launch Assist Platform (LAP), consisting of four vertical launch rockets strapped together to provide a high altitude launch pad for conical VTVL SSTO (see http://www.google.de/patents/US5667167).

    Such an approach would mean the BO design could be rapidly scaled to form the basis of launch system with significant payload capability. Although it would still require significant effort to develop a fully reusable orbiter, it offers an evolvable path to orbit that could earn revenue at each development step.

  9. Robert Clark says:

    New Shepard can be the first stage of a two-stage to orbit launcher:


    Bob Clark

  10. Pingback: Using New Shepherd for TSTO

  11. johnhare john hare says:

    Dave’s comment made me think of a concept hinted at in your previous articles and in several comment sections on various articles. A seven cluster of boosters has the outer six permanently attached as one ship. The outer six cross feed to the center until they are empty after which the center flies on to orbit with a hammerhead shroud up to three boosters wide. The six barrel outer comes home to a vertical landing and remains upright for gas-stack-n-go with a mobile crane.

  12. Juan Suros says:

    The Three Stage To Orbit (3STO) design might use the “Tip Tank” concept, where the upper stage is a fuel tank that is tipped off the top of the stack once it has drained into the final stage below. In a rocket that does all of it’s acceleration in near vacuum, you can then use one optimised engine for the second and third stages.
    The cargo is placed between the top two stages, just above the engines, or slung on the side.

  13. Chris Stelter says:

    Honestly, Jon, this is a much better business case than Rocketlab’s Electron (110kg IMLEO, $5m), Firefly’s Alpha (MAYBE 400kg IMLEO, $9m), or Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne (200kg IMLEO, something less than $10 million), the 3 different companies trying to rush into the market so big that SpaceX abandoned it even after building and testing the Falcon 1.

    Single (maybe two) stage, integrated off-site, weighing like 8 tons (about a fifth to a tenth of the other rockets), and you pay Blue Origin a half to one million bucks to solve the rest of the problem for you. Could maybe get launch costs of like $3million for 300kg or something. Or even much less if fancy-schmancy super-low-mass heatshield tech works and you can reuse the upper stage(s) as well (and at these low masses, helicopter recovery of the upper stage is certainly feasible… and it’d necessarily be low enough mass–less than a ton–that it could be recovered by the unmanned version of the Kaman K-MAX, or possibly an overgrown monstrosity of a multicopter).

  14. Paul451 says:

    What is meant to be the advantage of a “tip tank” over side-mount tanks on the first stage (or just a slightly larger first stage)?

  15. Paul451 says:

    John Hare,
    If you’re ringing the entire core-stage with boosters, then you wouldn’t use a hammerhead; you can just use a conventional shaped payload fairing, but as wide as the overall diameter of the launch vehicle. Ie, triple the width of a single core.

    (I think the cores are 12′. So a 36′ (10m) fairing. w00t! Actually, wider to allow spacing between cores.)

    (John Schilling’s launcher calculator gives such a configuration about 11 tonnes to LEO. So you probably don’t need a 10m fairing.)

  16. Peterh says:

    Somewhat reminds me of “The Rocket Company”. Makes first stage return to launch site fairly easy. Shot-put high enough with the first stage and you can cut gravity and drag losses the second stage needs to overcome to zero, in addition to the vacuum ISP. Get some extra altitude from the first stage for a higher orbit and the delta-V required for the second stage to make orbit is reduced some.

  17. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    That’s exactly where I got the idea–I was just applying it to New Shepard. To me the big benefit is that you have a highly-reusable first stage that’s already designed and in flight test, and one already designed for staging. So in theory, you only have to design one stage. It’s a moderately high performance stage, but you might very well halve the development cost compared to doing a ground-launched TSTO design from scratch, and your first stage is reusable. I could be wrong, but it looks intriguing.


  18. Chris Stelter says:

    Again, I think it easily beats any of the nanolaunchers out there that I’ve seen, which are full rocket engine development programs somehow expecting to provide affordable launch using fully expendable rockets (with the slight exception of Virgin Galactic… the 747 is reusable).

  19. “36′ (10m) fairing” a Cubesat launcher could be wide and flat. Heat shields for Mars landers can be wide but light weight. Since they do not have to worry about air resistance an empty fuel tank for a transfer vehicle or propellant depot can also be wide.

  20. Juan Suros says:

    Paul451 –

    A tip tank shields stages below from aerodynamic forces as the stack moves through the atmosphere. After it falls away, the rest of the stack is in vacuum and so can be very blunt in shape.

    Side tanks add drag, where a tip tank would not. For two stacks of identical width, side tanks constrain the size of the final stage.

    A slightly larger first stage would require the mass of an engine on all of the upper stages.

  21. johnhare john hare says:

    Not encountering tip tanks before and reading your last explanation. How much does the tip tank serve as payload shroud? Does any of the nominal shroud mass go away as part of the tip tank concept? Do you have any pointers to more info on the concept?

  22. Paul451 says:

    Re: Tip tanks,
    Me: “What is meant to be the advantage of a “tip tank” over […] just a slightly larger first stage?”
    Juan: “A slightly larger first stage would require the mass of an engine on all of the upper stages.”

    Not sure what you mean by that. If the first stage is already capable of launching the upper stage(s) plus payload plus tip-tank, it’s certainly capable of lofting a first stage with a tip-tank’s worth of extra fuel. There’s no need for a larger engine on the first stage, total launch mass is the same.

    I’m just not seeing what advantage a tip-tank has over a slightly enlarged first stage.

    Re: A ring-rocket,
    Andrew Swallow: “36′ (10m) fairing” a Cubesat launcher could be wide and flat.”

    That 10m fairing was for a design that put around 11 tonnes into LEO. That ain’t a cubesat “nanolauncher” anymore.

  23. I was not thinking of a nanolauncher, more of a machine gun style launcher.

  24. Robert Clark says:

    Using one of the larger Star solid rocket upper stages, New Shepard probably could send a few hundred kilos to LEO as a booster. This would be a faster, cheaper implementation for getting an orbital rocket from the New Shepard, though due to the small payload it would have a small market. Still with reusability of the booster lowering costs, it’s possible it could have a market for nanosats.

    Plus, it might beat SpaceX again, this time reusing a booster for an orbital launch.

    Bob Clark

  25. Juan Suros says:

    I thought tip tanks were an old idea, but now I can’t find any references. The Russian MAKS concept is close.

    The tip tank is nothing but a container for propellant that is at the top of the stack. Propellant feeds down through to the lower stages in the early part of flight. It is ejected off the top of the stack when emptied, removing marginal mass that is no longer needed.

    The lower stage engine thus serves double duty as the engine for both itself and the tip tank stage.

    If the tank is tipped above the atmosphere, then there is no need for aerodynamic front ends in the lower stages. In this sense, the tip tank could be thought of as a payload shroud.

  26. Paul451 says:

    However, first stages are much less mass sensitive than upperstages/payload. Enlarging the first stage tanks doesn’t hit payload mass significantly, so the cost of carrying the extra empty tank volume to MECO-staging is trivial. Developing an entirely extra pseudo-stage, plus an extra staging event, doesn’t seem worth the price of admission.

    (MAKS is an expendable drop tank for the reusable orbital vehicle. There the maths makes more sense.)

  27. Juan Suros says:

    I take your point about first stages. I was thinking of the original post, which was discussing upper stages for the New Shepherd.

  28. Isn’t it fairly likely that New Shepard’s first stage is capable of a lot more than just straight up and down? Presumably it can give you a fair bit of horizontal delta-V before returning to the launch site.

    The RTLS trajectory seems nuts to me, though. It seems far more reasonable to launch from e.g. Boca Chica and land the first stage at e.g. Canaveral. Then barge it back. For a F9 Heavy, the boosters can wait a while before their retro burn, whereas the core does it’s retro burn immediately after separation. This way they all come down at Canaveral.

  29. Paul451 says:

    “It seems far more reasonable to launch from e.g. Boca Chica and land the first stage at e.g. Canaveral.”

    Firstly, the down-range is more than current first-stages such as F9. (And so sure as hell beyond anything NS can do.)

    Secondly, it limits you to an extremely narrow arc of launch trajectories.

    Lastly, more generally, it would put your descent path over populated areas all the way across Florida. It Will Never Be Allowed.

  30. I think Bob makes a good point. Using a Star 48, for example, would allow you to put about 41 kg (90 lbs) into orbit. Of course, it’ll cost you about $5M. I think Chris might be forgetting to account for the second stage cost – not to mention the development cost if you roll your own.

  31. Robert Clark says:

    An article and video presentation with Jeff Bezos, where he mentions possibly giving the New Shepard a small upper stage to get an orbital launcher:

    How Jeff Bezos is using Amazon’s success to fuel Blue Origin’s space effort, a billion dollars at a time.
    BY ALAN BOYLE on April 5, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Bob Clark

  32. Robert,

    Yeah, it was cool to see a Random Thoughts idea being echoed by one of the wealthiest guys on the planet. 🙂


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