Blue Origin LLC halted the launch of its New Shepard suborbital rocket shortly after liftoff in West Texas, the first major setback for Jeff Bezos’ company since transitioning to conventional commercial flights.
There were no people on board Monday’s flight, which was carrying loads of payload, although a similar version of the same vehicle regularly takes paying customers to the edge of space and back. The US Federal Aviation Administration said it would investigate the incident.
Details of the failure have not been disclosed. Just over a minute after liftoff, the New Shepard rocket developed an engine problem and veered off course, triggering the emergency abort system.
“It wasn’t planned and we don’t have any details yet,” Erika Wagner, senior director of space emerging markets, said during Blue Origin’s live broadcast of the launch. “But our crew pod managed to escape.”
As soon as the failure occurred, the capsule on top of the rocket, which was used to carry the payload, ignited its engines and quickly separated from the rocket. The capsule landed safely under parachutes. A similar stopping technique will be used to rescue passengers in the event that people fly aboard the rocket during a failed launch.
“You can see how our safety back-up systems went into action today to keep our payload safe in a non-standard situation,” Wagner said. “Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin.” Blue Origin halted live coverage of the launch after the capsule landed in the desert.
A Blue Origin spokesperson said to stay tuned on Twitter for updates.
This was the ninth scheduled flight of this particular New Shepard launch vehicle. New Shepard is a fully reusable vehicle, and the launch vehicle is designed to land in an upright position after a successful launch into space.
The New Shepard rocket has had near-perfect flights so far, except for one partial failure early in its test campaign.
Flight with all payload
It was the first flight of a fully loaded New Shepard for Blue Origin since August 2021. Blue Origin began regularly carrying passengers on New Shepard in July 2021, when the company launched Bezos, its founder, into space.
In September 2021, a group of current and former Blue Origin employees wrote a collective essay accusing the company of a toxic work environment, as well as alleged safety issues. In December, the FAA cleared Blue Origin after reviewing the company’s safety culture.
The FAA, which issues licenses for commercial launches, said Monday it would oversee the investigation into the New Shepard “accident.” The FAA investigates incidents during spaceflight, but Congress has prevented it from enacting safety regulations beyond the protection of uninvolved bystanders.
“There were no reports of damage or damage to public property,” the FAA said, noting that the launch vehicle landed in a designated “dangerous” area. “Before the New Shepard vehicle returns to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process or procedure related to the accident affected the safety of the public.”
— With the help of Alan Levin.
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