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After Blue Origin’s rocket explodes, its spacecraft makes a dramatic escape

The emergency escape system is seen firing on the New Shepard spacecraft Monday morning after its rocket was lost.
Enlarge / The emergency escape system is seen firing on the New Shepard spacecraft Monday morning after its rocket was lost.

Blue Origin

An anomaly occurred during an uncrewed flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard launch system on Monday morning.

As the mission carrying three dozen scientific payloads ascended to about 9,000 meters, the New Shepard capsule’s solid rocket motor-powered escape system suddenly fired, safely pulling the capsule away from the rocket. This happened 1 minute and 4 seconds after launch.

Blue Origin’s webcast did not explain the anomaly, but it appeared that the rocket’s flight termination system was activated. This happened after the rocket had passed through max Q, the point at which the vehicle faces maximum dynamic pressure during ascent, and its BE-3 rocket engine was throttling back up to continue climbing on its suborbital trajectory. Suddenly, there was a large, anomalous plume of fire from the rocket’s engine, and the escape motor on board the spacecraft fired.

This was the ninth flight of this booster, which is one half of the launch system that also includes a capsule. The emergency escape system performed as intended, rapidly pulling the spacecraft away from an exploding rocket. Had a crew been on board this flight, they would have experienced a significant jolt and some high gravitational forces before landing safely in the West Texas desert.

“Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin,” said Erika Wagner, senior director for Emerging Space Markets for the company and the webcast’s primary commentator. “It’s why we built so much redundancy into the system.”

This is the New Shepard program’s first anomaly since its debut flight on April 29, 2015. That mission saw a nominal flight, and the spacecraft safely landed in West Texas. But the booster crash-landed. Since then, Blue Origin has accomplished 20 successful spaceflights and landings in a row, bringing both its boosters and spacecraft back safely.

Included among that tally are six human spaceflights, dating to July 20, 2021, and the inaugural spaceflight that carried Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. The company had already completed three human spaceflights this year ahead of Monday’s anomaly, with plans for as many as three more before the end of the year. It now seems likely that the New Shepard program will be sidelined for some time as the booster anomaly is diagnosed, fixed, and tested.

Blue Origin has designated different but similar spacecraft to fly suborbital science missions and human spaceflights. The RSS H. G. Wells made Monday’s flight. The company has used a newer spacecraft modified for passengers, the RSS First Step, for human flights.

The company’s first booster, Booster 1, was lost during the April 2015 flight. Booster 2 was retired in October 2016 after performing a successful test of the launch escape system on its fifth and final flight. Booster 3, which launched Monday’s mission, was the company’s oldest operational rocket, making its debut in December 2017. The company has used its newest rocket, Booster 4, exclusively for human launches. It has some modifications from Booster 3 to qualify it as a human-rated rocket.

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