Blue Origin suffered a rare mid-flight rocket failure in a mission on Monday, September 12. The flight was uncrewed, and no one on the ground was hurt by falling debris.
Lifting off from Blue Origin’s launch facility in West Texas, the sub-orbital New Shepard rocket, which has successfully performed six crewed and 17 uncrewed flights to the edge of space since 2015, appeared to be climbing normally.
But 65 seconds into the mission, just as the booster began to experience maximum aerodynamic stress at 661 mph and 27,800 feet, a large flame suddenly burst from the base of the rocket. About a second later, the vehicle was engulfed by a large explosion.
As expected in such a situation, the crew capsule’s emergency escape system activated, propelling the capsule away from the explosion at high speed.
Commentary on Blue Origin’s livestream halted for about 45 seconds as the capsule began to fall back to Earth.
“It appears we have experienced an anomaly on today’s flight,” the commentator eventually said. “This wasn’t planned, and we don’t have any details yet, but our crew capsule was able to escape successfully. We’ll follow its progress through landing.”
About five minutes later, with its parachutes fully deployed, the capsule touched down in the West Texas desert.
The team is now investigating what caused the New Shepard’s first midair failure in 23 flights.
The launch of Monday’s flight, which was carrying 36 science payloads, was delayed for about an hour, though Blue Origin has yet to say why.
Blue Origin has been using its New Shepard rocket to send paying passengers on short trips to the edge of space as part of a fledgling space tourism service. Blue Origin owner and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was one of four people to take the first crewed flight to about 62 miles above Earth in July 2021.
It’s too early to say how today’s accident will impact future Blue Origin flights. But the company will be pleased to have seen the capsule’s emergency escape system deploying as intended, with the safety mechanism’s success also providing reassurance to anyone considering taking a New Shepard flight in the future.
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