Blue Origin’s rocket exploded, but the capsule escape system worked a charm

Thankfully, no crew were onboard for what would have been a terrifying ride.
Chris Young
Blue Origin's launch and escape.
Blue Origin's launch and escape.

Blue Origin/YouTube 

One minute and four seconds after the launch of an uncrewed flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard launch system on Monday, September 12, the rocket suffered an anomaly.

Explosive footage shows the New Shepard capsule's solid rocket escape system fire up to safely eject the capsule away from the rocket's first stage.

The incident occurred when the rocket was flying at an altitude of about 9,000 meters and had just passed into max Q, the point at which the launch system faces the highest dynamic pressure.

No crew aboard New Shepard for Blue Origin launch failure

Thankfully, no crew members were onboard the capsule, which has, in the past, flown the likes of Jeff Bezos and Star Trek's William Shatner into space. Instead, the mission, dubbed NS-23, was carrying 36 scientific payloads.

If they had been, Blue Origin points out, they will have safely landed back on Earth thanks to a successful deployment of New Shepard's escape system. It would have been a terrifying ride though, and Blue Origin's first launch failure since going operational is a stark reminder that spaceflight is risky business — irrespective of space tourism firms highlighting their offerings as leisurely rides into suborbital space.

Blue Origin didn't explain what the anomaly was during their webcast of the launch, though Erika Wagner, senior director for Emerging Space Markets for the company and the webcast commentator pointed out that "safety is our highest value at Blue Origin. It's why we built so much redundancy into the system."

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In its post-mission update, Blue Origin wrote “during today’s flight, the capsule escape system successfully separated the capsule from the booster. The booster impacted the ground. There are no reported injuries; all personnel have been accounted for.”

The NS-23 mission was carrying 36 payloads — more than half of which belong to NASA — to altitudes higher than 60 miles (100 kilometers). These payloads were housed inside the capsule, which performed a soft landing thanks to its parachute system. Blue Origin has yet to provide an update on the state of these scientific payloads, though most of them will hopefully remain intact despite the bumpy ride back down to Earth.

Blue Origin's crewed launches likely on hold

The booster used for the launch was flying for the ninth time. Once the escape system powered the capsule away from any danger, the booster presumably crashed back down to Earth over the West Texas desert. The incident was New Shepard's first anomaly since its very first flight in 2015 when the booster crash-landed after a nominal flight. Since that time, Blue Origin has achieved 20 successful launches and landings.

Notably, Blue Origin has conducted six human spaceflights, with the first taking place on July 20, 2021, and carrying Jeff Bezos and three others into suborbital space. Blue Origin had plans for three more human spaceflights this year, though those will likely now be put on hold for some time as the company assesses the anomaly that caused this week's incident.

Blue Origin's Booster 3, which launched the NS-23 mission, was the company's oldest operational rocket, having first flown in 2017. Its Booster 4, which it uses exclusively for human launches, has a few modifications to qualify it as a human-rated rocket. Watch the full mission and incident — starting at around the one hour and 20 minute-mark — in the video below.

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