The Blue Origin rocket suffers a problem during an uncrewed launch

The Blue Origin rocket suffers a problem during an uncrewed launch

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket suffered a serious problem after liftoff Monday morning, forcing the vehicle’s emergency shutdown system to jettison the capsule away from the booster.

No one was on board – only science experiments – in what was supposed to be another in a series of suborbital flights to the edge of space and back. The company, which is owned by Jeff Bezos, also uses the New Shepard system to transport paying customers and has flown several human missions since Bezos himself made the first crewed flight last year. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Prior to launch, Blue Origin flight controllers called a series of holds, delaying the flight. It lifted off shortly before 10:30 a.m. Eastern Time from the company’s launch site in Van Horn, Texas. After clearing the launch tower, it entered what is known as “Max Q”, or the time when the air pressure is highest on the vehicle as it passes through the atmosphere on its way to space. .

Suddenly, about 1 minute 5 seconds into the flight, bright flames erupted from the thruster and the capsule’s emergency shutdown system activated, rapidly pulling it away from the rocket. The capsule’s parachutes then deployed and landed softly in the West Texas desert.

During a live broadcast of the event, Erika Wagner, Director of Payload Sales at Blue Origin, said: “It appears that we encountered an anomaly with today’s flight. It was not planned and we don’t have any details yet. But our crew capsule was able to successfully escape.

On Twitter, Blue Origin wrote, “We are responding to an issue this morning at our Launch Site One location in West Texas. This was a payload mission with no astronauts on board. The capsule’s escape system worked as expected. More information to come as it becomes available.

Blue Origin has repeatedly stated that it designed the vehicle to ensure safety, and before flying people, it rigorously tested the capsule’s emergency escape system on the ground and twice during the flight. . During a test, they simulated a parachute failure so that the spacecraft landed under two parachutes instead of three.

“Security is our highest value at Blue Origin,” Wagner said. “That’s why we built so much redundancy into the system.”

In an interview last year, Gary Lai, senior manager of New Shepard’s design team, said that “flights are just kind of the tip of the iceberg – the part that floats above water that people can see. We test the vehicle on the ground, the components, the software, many more times than we drive them. Up to the point where when we do the flight tests we’re actually pretty confident that it will work.

On board the capsule were 36 payloads from schools, universities and organizations, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It was the fourth flight for New Shepard this year and the ninth flight for the reusable vehicle, which the company says is dedicated to scientific flight and research in space.

In total, Blue Origin has carried 31 people into space and hoped to fly more this year. That will be on hold while the company investigates what happened to Monday’s flight.

The incident comes as the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board struggle to clarify who investigates spaceflight accidents. Last week, the agencies signed an agreement detailing how they will work together in the event of an accident. The NTSB would be the agency responsible for any commercial space accident resulting in death or serious injury to anyone, or if there is property damage not associated with the launch.

In a statement, the FAA said it would oversee the investigation into Monday’s crash, as “the capsule landed safely and the booster was impacted within the designated danger zone. No injuries or damage to the public property has been reported.

Before New Shepard can resume flight, the FAA “will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the crash affected public safety,” she said.

In addition to Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic also aims to transport paying customers to the far reaches of space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has flown a series of NASA astronaut crews to the International Space Station, as well as private astronaut missions. Boeing also plans to start flying astronauts early next year.

The industry has been lightly regulated, benefiting from a Congressional mandate that commercial spaceflight is still in its infancy and therefore in a “learning period”. Emerging space companies should be allowed to innovate and grow, advocates say, before the government can impose strict rules that govern their operation.

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