Blue Origin will return to flight more than a year after the rocket’s unmanned launch failure

By | December 18, 2023

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Blue Origin’s tourist rocket – designed to carry paying customers on short trips to the edge of space – will fly again on Monday after the Jeff Bezos-founded company spent more than a year recovering from a failed unmanned test flight .

The rocket, New Shepard, is expected to launch at 8:30 a.m. CT (9:30 a.m. ET) on an unmanned science mission from Blue Origin’s facilities on a private ranch in West Texas. The company will stream the event on its website.

Although no one will be aboard the flight, a success could prompt Blue Origin to restart its space travel for thrill-seekers.

A New Shepard rocket and spacecraft was scheduled to launch an array of scientific instruments on September 12, 2022. But after one minute of flight, the rocket passed Max Q – an aerospace term referring to a moment of maximum load on a vehicle at a relatively low speed. low altitude where the atmosphere is still quite thick and the rocket is moving at almost the speed of sound.

About that time, the rocket appeared to emit a huge burst of flame. The New Shepard capsule, which rides on top of the rocket, then initiated the launch abort system, starting a small engine to safely launch itself away from the failed rocket. That system worked as intended and parachuted the capsule to a safe landing.

Blue Origin later revealed that the cause of the failure was a problem with the engine nozzle, a large cone that directs flaming exhaust gases toward the bottom of the rocket. On-board computers accurately detected the fault and shut down the engine, the company said.

No injuries were reported on the ground and Blue Origin said the science payload and capsule could be flown again.

But the rocket, left without a functioning engine, crashed back into the ground and was completely destroyed. After New Shepard is launched, the rocket booster typically guides itself back to a safe, upright landing so it can be flown again.

During an interview on Thursday with podcaster Lex Fridman, Bezos said the escape system that lifted the capsule to safety is the most difficult piece of engineering on the entire rocket — but “it’s the reason I’m comfortable putting someone on New Shepard.” ”

“The (rocket) booster is as safe and reliable as we can make it,” Bezos added. “The power density is so enormous that it is impossible to ever be sure that nothing will go wrong. … So the only way to improve safety is to have an escape system.

“A tourist vehicle, in my opinion, should be designed … to be as safe as possible,” he said. “You can’t make it completely safe. It’s impossible.”

What went wrong

Before the September 2022 failure, the New Shepard rockets had flown 22 consecutive successful missions – six of which carried passengers. Bezos flew aboard the rocket in 2021.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches and is charged with ensuring public safety, oversaw an investigation into the failure. The probe revealed that the engine’s nozzle failed as it experienced higher temperatures than what the company expected.

To fix the problem, Blue Origin said it made “design changes to the combustion chamber” — the area of ​​the engine where fuel explosively mixes with oxidizer — and adjusted “operating parameters,” or the data the company uses to determine safe to model flights.

“Additional design changes to the nozzle have improved structural performance under thermal and dynamic loads,” the company said in a March statement.

The FAA formally concluded its investigation into the accident on September 27 and outlined 21 “corrective actions” that Blue Origin must implement before returning to flight. The agency did not release details on what those actions were, noting that the report “contains proprietary U.S. export control data and information and is not available for public release.”

New Glenn on the horizon

New Shepard’s return comes as Blue Origin races to deliver on another major project: It’s developing a massive rocket called New Glenn capable of delivering satellites and other large payloads into orbit.

That rocket is years late. And the same engines that will power New Glenn’s rocket booster, the BE-4 engines, will also power a new line of rockets developed by United Launch Alliance – a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing. United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket will launch its first mission in January, delivering a NASA-sponsored lander to the moon.

New Glenn also has a major first launch on the horizon, possibly carrying a NASA satellite to study the magnetized region around Mars next year.

Bezos admitted during last week’s podcast interview that he is “extremely nervous” about New Glenn’s initial launch.

“Every launch I go to, for New Shepard, and other vehicles as well, I’m always nervous about these launches,” he said. “A first launch – not to be nervous about that – would be a sign of confusion.”

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