Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Jeff Bezos, is gearing up to relaunch its New Shepard spacecraft, marking the end of a 15-month hiatus following a mission failure. The upcoming launch, slated for no earlier than December 18, is set to carry 33 science and research payloads, along with 38,000 postcards from the @clubforfuture initiative, according to the company’s recent social media announcement.
This mission, referred to as New Shepard 24 (NS-24), is particularly significant as it aims to refly the payloads from the New Shepard 23 (NS-23) mission. The NS-23 mission, launched in September 2022, experienced a critical engine nozzle failure just over a minute after takeoff. Fortunately, the capsule’s emergency escape system functioned flawlessly, saving the spacecraft and allowing for the recovery of the payloads onboard.
Blue Origin has been diligent in addressing the issues that led to the NS-23 mission failure. Following a thorough accident analysis completed in the spring, the company implemented design changes to the BE-3 engine combustion chamber. These modifications were essential for ensuring the reliability and safety of future flights.
Despite initial plans to resume flights soon after the investigation, Blue Origin faced additional delays. Reports suggest that certification challenges with an engine part were responsible for pushing the timeline further, delaying the uncrewed return-to-flight mission initially scheduled for early October.
There’s speculation about which rocket and spacecraft Blue Origin will use for the upcoming mission. The company’s fleet has seen various changes over the years, with its first New Shepard rocket lost in 2015 and the second retired in 2016. The loss of Booster 3 in the NS-23 mission and the exclusive use of Booster 4 for human launches leave questions about the hardware for the NS-24 mission.
Amid these developments, Blue Origin has experienced significant shifts in its leadership. Dave Limp, a former Amazon executive, has taken over as the new chief executive, replacing Bob Smith. This change is part of a broader shift within the company, which could influence the future direction of projects like New Shepard.
Financial viability remains a concern for Blue Origin’s New Shepard program. Despite its technological achievements, the program has yet to achieve financial success. Jeff Bezos has been a major financial supporter, but the company may need to focus more on profitable ventures like the New Glenn rocket and lunar lander projects.
Despite these challenges, the announcement of New Shepard’s return to flight indicates Blue Origin’s commitment to this program. The company continues to invest in suborbital spaceflight, a sector that also includes competitors like Virgin Galactic.
New Shepard’s upcoming mission is not just about returning to flight; it’s also about carrying valuable research and scientific payloads. These payloads are crucial for various scientific investigations and experiments that benefit from the unique conditions of space.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) played a pivotal role in the aftermath of the NS-23 mission failure. Their investigation required Blue Origin to implement significant corrective actions, including structural improvements and organizational changes.
The New Shepard rocket, known for its autonomous flight capability and reusable booster, has become a symbol of Blue Origin’s technological prowess. To date, the vehicle has successfully carried 31 people past the edge of space, showcasing the potential of commercial spaceflight.
The NS-23 mission failure was a stark reminder of the inherent challenges and risks in spaceflight. The problem with the booster’s engine was a significant setback, but the successful escape of the capsule highlighted the effectiveness of Blue Origin’s safety systems.
The FAA’s closure of the mishap investigation was an important step towards resuming flights. However, the agency’s requirements for Blue Origin to implement numerous corrective actions underscored the need for stringent safety measures in commercial spaceflight.
Blue Origin’s completion of the FAA-required actions paves the way for New Shepard’s return to the launch pad. This progress is a testament to the company’s dedication to addressing safety concerns and enhancing the reliability of its spacecraft.
Blue Origin’s journey highlights the competitive nature of the suborbital space tourism market. Virgin Galactic, another major player in this arena, has continued its operations, conducting six crewed missions during New Shepard’s downtime.