Blue Origin rocket launch fails after engine catches fire

Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket suffered a catastrophic engine failure on its 23rd launch attempt, ending a seven-year streak of 21 successes.

After a handful of mostly weather-related delays that pushed New Shepard’s 23rd launch roughly two weeks past its original Aug. 31 target, the single-stage vehicle lifted off from Blue Origin’s Van Horn launch site. , Texas, at approximately 10:25 a.m. CDT (14:25 UTC) on September 12. Measuring approximately 15 meters (49 ft) high, 3.7 meters (12.1 ft) wide and capable of producing around 50 tonnes (~110,000 lbf) of thrust with its single BE-3 engine at full throttle, New Shepard only reached halfway through his nominal powered ascent before disaster struck.

The first signs of trouble appeared about 62 seconds after liftoff in the form of flickers and flashes in New Shepard’s exhaust, which is normally almost transparent. Less than two seconds after the first seemingly innocuous flash, flames unintentionally erupted from New Shepard’s engine section and quickly surrounded her BE-3PM engine. Less than a second after that, the rocket is aft and has started to lose pieces and has stopped producing thrust, igniting a solid rocket motor stored inside its deployable capsule.

About a second after the incident began, the capsule’s abort engine ignited and transported the suborbital spacecraft safely away from the failing New Shepard booster. The capsule eventually reached an apogee of 11.4 kilometers (7.1 miles) – nearly ten times less than nominal – before descending back to Earth, deploying its parachute system and landing safely in the Texas desert scrub. Fortunately, NS-23 was only carrying experiments and no humans were in danger. If a crew of suborbital tourists had been on board, they would probably have been a little battered but otherwise completely unscathed.

While any failure of a rocket is unfortunate, the failure of a rocket designed to launch humans can have even worse repercussions. However, thanks to the seemingly flawless unplanned performance of New Shepard’s drop system, it’s safe to say that the day could have been much worse for Blue Origin.

Failure still won’t do Blue Origin or New Shepard’s reputation any favors. It also invites less-than-favorable comparisons to SpaceX, another equally-funded spaceflight startup founded by a tech mogul in the early 2000s.

Created a year and a half ago after Blue Origin, SpaceX, by comparison, reached orbit with Falcon 1 in 2008. In June 2010, it successfully launched Falcon 9, an orbital-class rocket about 20 times larger. In 2012, Falcon 9 successfully launched an orbital Dragon spacecraft which became the first private vehicle to dock with the International Space Station. In January 2015, it made its first attempt to retrieve a Falcon 9 booster. In December 2015, a month after Blue Origin’s first successful landing on New Shepard, SpaceX made its first successful Falcon 9 booster landing.

Nine months later, Falcon 9 suffered a catastrophic failure during pre-launch testing in September 2016 and did not return to flight until January 2017. This is where, for the most part, Blue Origin’s paths and SpaceX have diverged almost entirely – but not in any obvious way. Instead, after a successful suborbital launch in October 2016, New Shepard did not fly again until December 2017. In the approximately six years between October 2016 and September 2022, New Shepard conducted 10 uncrewed suborbital launches, 6 suborbital tourist launches, and suffered a failure on another uncrewed mission – 18 launches in total.

Despite a catastrophic failure that destroyed a customer’s multimillion-dollar satellite in September 2016, SpaceX resumed flight four months later, completed 150 orbital Falcon launches without failure during the same period; launched the world’s largest operational rocket, Falcon Heavy, and conducted two additional launches with it; launched Crew Dragon and Cargo Dragon 2 on Falcon 9; launched its first astronauts into orbit, launched its first operational astronaut transport mission for NASA, launched its first two Starlink internet satellite prototypes, launched 60 more refined Starlink prototypes, started operational Falcon 9 Starlink launches, built and launched more than 3000 Starlink satellites in total; landed over 130 Falcon boosters and reused Falcon boosters 117 times.

Completed on September 11, Falcon 9’s final mission was its 173rd successful orbital launch. (Richard Angle)

The differences couldn’t be more stark or bizarre, given that the two companies have more or less operated side by side and worked towards similar goals for as long as they’ve existed. To Blue Origin’s credit, the company managed a record six New Shepard launches – three carrying tourists – in 2021. NS-23 was its fourth planned launch in 2022, suggesting it could have achieved a similar cadence this year if the mission had had a different fate. Instead, the failed launch has triggered an anomaly investigation that will search for the root cause and attempt to uncover any deficiencies that will then need to be corrected before New Shepard can resume flight. Given that Blue Origin spent 15 months between successful Launch of New Shepard, it is impossible to say how long this process will take.

In the meantime, the apparent failure of New Shepard’s BE-3PM engine could trigger investigations into Blue Origin’s other engine programs. Although significantly different, BE-3U, an upper-stage optimized variant of New Glenn, Blue Origin’s first orbital rocket, probably shares the most in common with New Shepard’s BE-3PM. BE-7, a small engine intended to propel a lunar lander, could also be impacted.

More importantly, Blue Origin is also in the process of finally preparing two much more powerful and much more complex BE-4 engines for customer United Launch Alliance (ULA). Years late, Blue Origin completed the first two theoretically airworthy BE-4 engines and began putting them through qualification testing earlier this year. He wants to ship those engines to ULA as soon as possible to avoid delaying the launch of the customer’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket. BE-3PM and BE-4 probably don’t share a single part, but many Blue Origin employees probably worked on both programs, and the same Blue Origin management certainly oversaw both. As long as there is some form of commonality, no matter how abstract, there is always a risk that the underlying cause of problems in one program is present in others.

Ultimately, there is unlikely to be a serious connection. The failed New Shepard booster on NS-23 was nearly five years old and flying for a record ninth time. It’s possible that Blue Origin privately worried about the possibility of failure while pushing the envelope, but it offered no qualifications when discussing the mission. By comparison, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has almost always made it clear that failure is a possibility when the company attempts “firsts” of all kinds.

SpaceX recently launched and retrieved the same Falcon 9 booster for the 14th time, setting its own internal record. As a result, this single Falcon 9 booster, B1058, has flown as many times in the past 31 months as all New Shepard boosters combined have flown in the past 45 months.

Finally, while no company should be placed in this position, Blue Origin deserves praise for its live coverage of the Anomaly. Instead of immediately cutting streams, which most vendors would be expected to do during an operational launch, Blue Origin continued to broadcast views of the failure and provide live commentary until the capsule. of New Shepard arises well before the scheduled date.

Blue Origin rocket launch fails after engine catches fire

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