New Shepard rocket

Blue Origin’s New Shephard rocket suffers first launch failure

Image credit: Blue Origin

The latest launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket and capsule was aborted mid-flight due to a propulsion failure.

Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket was less than a minute into the flight when bright yellow flames shot out from around the single engine at the bottom.

Immediately, the capsule’s emergency launch abort system kicked in, lifting the craft off the top. Several minutes later, the capsule parachuted onto the remote desert floor and crashed back into West Texas with no injuries or damage reported, according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The rocket did not carry any human passengers, only science experiments. However, this same model of rocket is also used to launch people on 10-minute rides to the edge of space.

"It appears that we've experienced an anomaly with today's flight," said Dr Erika Wagner, a senior director at Blue Origin, while doing the in-flight webcast commentary. "This wasn't planned and we don't have any details yet."

An hour or later, the Kent, Washington-based company tweeted: “Booster failure on today’s uncrewed flight. Escape system performed as designed”. No further details about the incident have been provided by the company.

The rocket's propulsion failure occurred as the rocket was travelling nearly 700mph (1,126km/h) at an altitude of around 28,000ft (8,500m). This is considered the point at which the rocket is under the maximum amount of pressure, referred to as max-q.

The system is designed to sense problems in the booster rocket and then push the capsule away to a safe distance. Therefore, when the failure was detected, a motor pushed the capsule clear, enabling it to make a soft return to the ground with the aid of parachutes.

There was no video shown of the rocket - only the capsule - after the failure.

The capsule was carrying 36 payloads from academia, research institutions and students from across the globe, which aimed to analyse the effects of weightlessness experienced at the top of the capsule's routine apogee of a little over 62 miles (100km). Half of the experiments onboard were sponsored by Nasa.

Last year, the company began using these rockets to carry people on short trips above the atmosphere. The first of such flights carried Blue Origin's founder Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark. To date, Blue Origin has taken 31 people to space, including Star Trek actor William Shatner.

The New Shepard is designed to autonomously fly six passengers more than 100km above Earth into suborbital space, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the curvature of the planet before the pressurised capsule returns to earth under parachutes.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial spaceflight in the US, said it would be investigating Monday's incident and confirmed that the rocket is grounded pending its outcome. 

"Before the New Shepard vehicle can return to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations," an FAA statement read.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles