FAA Grounds Bezos After New Shepard Booster Goes Up in Flames

Early speculation suggests there’s something wrong with the rocket’s BE-3 engine, which would spell bad news for Blue Origin.

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Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos during a post-launch briefing on July 20, 2021.
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos during a post-launch briefing on July 20, 2021.
Photo: Tony Gutierrez (AP)

Suborbital flights of Blue Origin’s space tourism rocket are suspended pending a Federal Aviation Administration review of Monday’s in-flight anomaly. No passengers were aboard at the time, but the apparent booster failure triggered the vehicle’s capsule escape system.

The apparent booster failure happened 65 seconds into Blue Origin’s NS-23 mission, which blasted off from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas at 10:27 a.m. ET on Monday. The anomaly caused the rocket’s abort system to engage, shooting the uncrewed capsule away from the fiery booster. The capsule made a successful parachute-assisted landing, but the booster crashed to the ground instead of performing its usual vertical landing.

The New Shepard rocket appeared to be completely enveloped in flame, prior to the capsule ejecting from the launch vehicle.
The New Shepard rocket appeared to be completely enveloped in flame, prior to the capsule ejecting from the launch vehicle.
Screenshot: Blue Origin
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There are no reports of injuries or property damage, and we’re still awaiting word on the fate of the 36 scientific and technological payloads that took part in NS-23. Of these payloads, most belonged to NASA.

Monday’s booster failure “is a compelling reminder of the risks of spaceflight,” Don Beyer, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, said in a government statement. “I take our oversight role in this area very seriously. I will await further information from the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation as it begins its investigation of the anomaly experienced today.”

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Indeed, the Federal Aviation Administration has launched an investigation into the incident and has suspended launches of New Shepard pending the outcome. Before the rocket is allowed to fly again, the FAA “will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety,” the agency explained in a statement. The FAA said its investigation was “standard practice” following an accident of this type, and that the agency is “responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations.”

The rocket normally takes paying passengers on short suborbital trips to the edge of space, in which the capsule reaches heights in excess of 60 miles (100 kilometers). The capsule, separated from the first stage booster, then returns to Earth with the assistance of a parachute. Founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin has sent 31 people to space since the company launched its space tourism offering on July 20, 2021. Blue Origin has not published a set price for these trips, but some passengers claim to have paid as much as $30 million.

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A cause of the anomaly has yet to be identified, but as reported in SpaceNews, speculation is emerging that something’s wrong with New Shepard’s BE-3 engine. The appearance of the engine plume changed prior to the mishap, while debris could be seen falling from the rocket. “We are not prepared to talk about what actually happened,” ​​Jarrett Jones, senior vice president for New Glenn at Blue Origin, said while speaking at a World Satellite Business Week panel currently being held in Paris. “It’s a little premature to assume that it was something related to the engine.”

Fair enough, but if it is an engine problem, that’s potentially bad news for Blue Origin. Technology from the BE-3 engine has been transferred to the BE-3U engine that powers the upper stage of Blue Origin’s New Glenn heavy-lift rocket, according to SpaceNews. New Glenn is supposed to launch for the first time next year, but a faulty engine could alter those plans.

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This isn’t the first time that the FAA has had to press pause on a space tourism offering. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo had to be grounded following an incident on July 11, 2021, when VSS Unity strayed from sanctioned airspace and its pilots ignored warning lights during the ascent.