Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin aborted the launch of its suborbital New Shepard rocket and its capsule, the RSS H.G. Wells, shortly after takeoff in West Texas on Monday.
The New Shepard — a fully reusable rocket system designed to land upright following a successful launch — experienced an “anomaly” around 1 minute 4 seconds after launch. It veered off course, prompting an emergency system to abort the launch just before the rocket was completely destroyed.
Blue Origin described the rocket issue as a “booster failure,” but the exact cause of the malfunction is not yet known. The rocket reached Max Q, described as “the point where aerodynamic stress on the vehicle is at its maximum,” before the failure occurred, said Erika Wagner, senior director of emerging space markets.
When the booster failure occurred, the rocket was traveling nearly 700 mph at an altitude of about 28,000 feet. The capsule separated from the rocket by its backup safety systems and landed intact under the parachutes. A similar technique would be implemented if passengers were flying inside the capsule during a failed launch.
“This was a payload mission with no astronauts on board,” according to a statement on Blue Origin’s official Twitter account. “The capsule escape system functioned as designed.”
“This wasn’t planned, and we don’t have any details yet,” Wagner said during Blue Origin’s live stream of the launch, “but our crew capsule was able to escape successfully. You can see how our backup safety systems kicked in today to keep our payload safe during an off-nominal situation.”
She added that “safety is our highest value at Blue Origin.” The launch live stream ended after the capsule landed in the desert.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stated it “will oversee the investigation of Blue Origin’s NS-23 mishap. No injuries or public property damage have been reported,” as the booster landed in a designated “hazard” area.
“Before [any of] the New Shepard vehicle[s] can return to flight, the FAA will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety,” the agency stated.
Blue Origin said the capsule carried 36 payloads from academia, research institutions, and students from around the world.
One of the 18 payloads funded by NASA was the Infinity Fuel Cell, which would have tested the operation of hydrogen fuel cell technology in microgravity, said Wagner. Blue Origin stated these fuel cells could be used to power lunar rovers, surface equipment, habitats, and more.
The payloads also included projects from schools, including the University of Florida and Johns Hopkins University.
“These payloads are helping prepare important capabilities for our future of living and working in space, for the benefit of Earth,” Wagner said.
She also said there were “tens of thousands of postcards” onboard from Club for the Future, Blue Origin’s nonprofit whose purpose is to inspire students to pursue a career in STEM.
This was the ninth planned flight of the New Shepard and marked the first significant failure of Blue Origin since the company transitioned to routine commercial flights. Aside from one partial failure early in its testing campaign, the New Shepard rocket had a nearly perfect flight record until Monday.
If the launch had gone as planned, the RSS H.G. Wells capsule would have separated from the New Shepard at the Kármán line — the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space, about 62 miles above the planet’s surface.