Leading up to the launch, Blue Origin flight controllers called a series of holds, delaying the flight. It lifted off shortly before 10:30 a.m. Eastern from the company’s launch site in Van Horn, Tex. After clearing the launch tower, it entered what is known as “Max Q,” or the moment when aerodynamic pressure is greatest on the vehicle as it pushes through the atmosphere on the way to space.
Suddenly, at about 1 minutes 5 seconds into flight, bright flames burst from the booster and the capsule’s emergency abort system kicked in, quickly shooting it away from the rocket. The capsule’s parachutes later deployed, and it landed softly in the West Texas desert.
During a live broadcast of the event, Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s payload sales director, said: “It appears we’ve experienced an anomaly with today’s flight. This was unplanned and we don’t have any details yet. But our crew capsule was able to escape successfully.”
On Twitter, Blue Origin wrote: “We’re responding to an issue this morning at our Launch Site One location in West Texas. This was a payload mission with no astronauts on board. The capsule escape system functioned as designed. More information to come as it is available.”
Later it said on Twitter that there was a booster “failure,” but didn’t provide any additional details on what went wrong.
Blue Origin has said repeatedly that it designed the vehicle to ensure safety, and before it flew any people, it rigorously tested the capsule’s emergency escape system on the ground and twice during flight. During one test, they simulated a parachute failure so that the spacecraft landed under two parachutes instead of three.
“Safety is our highest value at Blue Origin,” Wagner said. “It’s why we built so much redundancy into the system.”
In an interview last year, Gary Lai, the senior director of the New Shepard design team, said that the “flights are just kind of the tip of the iceberg — the part that floats above the water that people can see. We test the vehicle on the ground, the components, the software, many, many more times than we fly them. Up to the point where when we do the flight tests we’re actually pretty confident it’s going to work.”
On board the capsule were 36 payloads from schools, universities and organizations, including the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. It was the fourth flight for New Shepard this year, and the ninth flight for the reusable vehicle, which the company said is dedicated to flying science and research to space, not humans. The company uses another spacecraft and rocket for human flights.
In all, Blue Origin has flown 31 people to space and was hoping to fly more this year. That will be on hold, while the company investigates what went wrong on Monday’s flight.
The mishap comes as the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board have been working to clarify who investigates spaceflight crashes. Last week, the agencies signed an agreement detailing how they’ll work together in the event of a mishap. The NTSB would be the lead agency in any commercial space accidents that result in a fatal or serious injury to anyone, or if there is damage to property not associated with the launch.
In a statement, the FAA said it would oversee the accident investigation into Monday’s mishap, because “the capsule landed safely and the booster impacted within the designated hazard area. No injuries or public property damage have been reported.”
Before New Shepard can return to flight, the FAA “will determine whether any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap affected public safety,” it said.
In addition to Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic also aims to fly paying customers to the edge of space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has flown a series of NASA astronaut crews to the International Space Station, as well as private astronaut missions. Boeing also plans to start flying astronauts early next year.
The industry has been lightly regulated, enjoying a mandate by Congress that commercial spaceflight is still in its infancy and therefore in a “learning period.” The emerging space companies should be allowed to innovate and grow, proponents say, before the government can impose strict rules that govern how they operate.