Updated: Sep 14, 2022
The emergency escape system brought the capsule safely to the ground
Blue Origin aborted the launch of its New Shepard suborbital rocket shortly after liftoff on September 12, 2022, in the first major failure of Jeff Bezos' company since transitioning to routine commercial flights. The launch took place at 14:27 GMT (10:27 EDT) from the 'Launch Site One' at the Corn Ranch property of Blue Origin, near Van Horn, Texas.
There were no passengers aboard the CC2.0-1 capsule 'RSS H.G. Wells', which carried a number of payloads. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would investigate the incident. This was the first New Shepard flight with a payload since August 2021. The mission was named NS-23 and used the reusable rocket-booster NS-03 in its ninth launch.
The launch was originally scheduled for August 31st and then September 1st – and both times had to be delayed due to weather.
The FAA, which licenses commercial launches, said in a statement it would oversee the accident investigation. The entity analyzes incidents in space flights, but Congress prevented it from enacting security regulations and protecting uninvolved bystanders. "No injury or damage to public property has been reported," the FAA said, noting that the booster rocket crashed within a designated “danger” area, or exclusion zone. "Before the New Shepard vehicle can return to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the accident has affected public safety."
Blue Origin began transporting passengers routinely since July 2021, when it launched Jeff 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" in addition to claiming security problems. In December, the FAA released the company after conducting a review of its safety culture.
The failure to launch
Details of the breach were not disclosed. Just over a minute after takeoff, the propulsion module (Propulsion Module - PM, in the nomenclature of Blue Origin) appeared to suffer a problem in the BE-3 engine and deviate from the course, leading the emergency breakdown system into action at T + 01min05s. "This has not been planned and we still have no details," said Erika Wagner, senior director of emerging space markets, during the live broadcast of the launch. "But our crew capsule ["CC": Crew Capsule] managed to escape successfully."
Once the malfunction occurred, the CC2.0-1 capsule fired its emergency solid fuel engine and quickly separated from the rocket, and landed safely under parachutes. A similar escape technique would be used to rescue passengers if they were on board during a failure. "You can see how our backup safety systems came into play today to keep our payload safe during an off-nominal situation," Wagner said. "Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin." The company ended the broadcast after the capsule landed in the desert. A Blue Origin representative said the company would make announcements on twitter for updates.
At T+ 1min 01 s, at 7,714.7 meters altitude, there was an apparent anomaly in the jet plume; at 8,473.4 meters, a tongue of fire, unidentifiable in nature by the distance images came out of the engine section, and a fragment, unidentifiable, was seen flying away. The Propulsion Module came out of the vertical axis of alignment (X axis), and after the immediate ignition of the capsule's exhaust engine, it was no longer in focus by the camera. It was unclear whether the engineers simply let the rocket fall to the ground (since telemetry allowed them to predict its drop zone, and that is taken into account in all mission planning) or whether the self-destruct system was triggered – which does not seem likely.
The capsule was carrying thirty-six scientific payloads from research organizations, universities, and schools. It was also carrying tens of thousands of postcards from Club for the Future, Blue Origin's education promotion organization. Two payloads were in a rack on the outer hull of the New Shepard rocket; 18 payloads inside the pressurized capsule were funded by NASA through the Flight Opportunities program; 24 payloads were received from schools, universities, and organizations involved in STEM education, and the Club for the Future postcards.
The shipments included hydrogen fuel cell technology developed by Infinity Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Inc. a Windsor, Connecticut-based company with a NASA-funded contract to develop an Advanced Modular Power and Energy System. AMPES fuel cell technology could be used to generate power for future lunar rovers and surface habitats, and it was hoped that Blue Origin's launch would allow engineers to test some of the hardware in microgravity.