Blue Origin traces launch failure to nozzle; flights to resume ‘soon’

New Shepard booster flare

The booster for Blue Origin’s New Shepard spaceship flares during last year’s ascent. (Blue Origin via YouTube)

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says a launch anomaly that forced the suspension of its suborbital spaceflights last September was caused by a structural failure of the rocket engine’s nozzle.

Corrective actions are being taken, and flights are expected to resume “soon,” Blue Origin said today. The redesigned New Shepard spaceship will re-fly the payloads that were part of the uncrewed mission that went awry.

No people were aboard New Shepard during last year’s launch from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas. No one was injured on the ground, and there was no damage to ground-based systems. All of the debris from the mishap was recovered within the designated hazard area.

Flights have been suspended during Blue Origin’s investigation, which was conducted by a team including representatives from NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board with oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration. In an emailed statement, the FAA said the investigation “remains open.”

“The agency is currently reviewing the company’s submission of its mishap report,” it said. “FAA approval is required to close the investigation and for the New Shepard System to return to flight.”

Before the failure of the uncrewed research mission, known as NS-23, Blue Origin had flown 31 customers and special guests (including Bezos and his brother Mark, and Star Trek actor William Shatner) on six crewed suborbital trips. There were also more than a dozen uncrewed flights, many of which carried research payloads.

Blue Origin’s only other New Shepard failure occurred during the first test flight of the suborbital launch system in 2015. As was the case for that earlier failure, last September’s mishap led to the loss of the rocket booster, but the capsule that would have held crew was recovered safely. Blue Origin said if there had been crew members aboard, they would have had a safe but rocky ride.

According to today’s update, the direct cause of NS-23’s anomaly was a thermo-structural failure of the BE-3PM engine nozzle. “The resulting thrust misalignment properly triggered the Crew Capsule escape system, which functioned as designed throughout the flight,” Blue Origin said.

To track down the cause, investigators examined the booster debris and reviewed video and telemetry from the mission. Close examination of fragments of the nozzle revealed hot streaks and other signs of thermal damage due to hotter-than-expected operating temperatures.

Investigators “determined that design changes made to the engine’s boundary layer cooling system accounted for an increase in nozzle heating and explained the hot streaks present,” Blue Origin said.

An aerial photo at left shows the terrain at Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas. The inset photo at right focuses on a recovered fragment of New Shepard’s engine nozzle. (Blue Origin Photos)

Blue Origin said it’s implementing corrective actions, “including design changes to the combustion chamber and operating parameters, which have reduced engine nozzle bulk and hot-streak temperatures.” The company said other nozzle design changes have improved structural performance under thermal and dynamic loads.

Today’s update gave no schedule for future flights, other than to say that they’d resume soon. But Blue Origin’s vice president of commercial and international sales, Ariane Cornell, said at last week’s Satellite 2023 conference that the company was “looking to get back into flight with New Shepard by the end of this year.”

Blue Origin said the payloads that were in the capsule for last September’s failed flight — half of which were funded by NASA — survived the mishap intact and would be re-flown. No people would be aboard for that flight. Looking further ahead, Jeff Bezos’ girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez, has said she hopes to take a suborbital spaceflight with an all-female crew by early 2024.

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