Blue Origin Acknowledges Test Flight Failure

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Blue Origin, the private entrepreneurial space group backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, acknowledged Sept. 2 that it lost its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft during a test mishap in Texas.

“Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet,” or 13,716 meters, Bezos wrote in a statement posted on the Blue Origin website Sept 2.

Bezos’ statement appeared several hours after The Wall Street Journal first reported on the Aug. 24 test failure.

According to Bezos, a “flight instability” drove an angle of attack that triggered the Blue Origin range safety team to terminate thrust on the vehicle. The vehicle roared skyward from the Blue Origin spaceport, roughly 40 kilometers north of tiny Van Horn, Texas, before the failure.

The tight-lipped Blue Origin space company has been focused on suborbital spaceflight, first using its Goddard vehicle and then migrating to the New Shepard spacecraft design at its facility in Culberson County, Texas. New Shepard is seen by the company as supporting the commercial suborbital tourist market. The Goddard vehicle flew on a short, successful test flight in November 2006.

In April, NASA awarded Blue Origin $22 million in funding under the space agency’s Commercial Crew Development program for development of concepts and technologies to support future human spaceflight operations. That award followed $3.7 million in NASA funding the company received in 2010 to develop an astronaut escape system and space capsule for ground tests.

NASA retired its space shuttle fleet in July and plans to rely on U.S. commercial spacecraft like those being developed by Blue Origin and other private space companies to transport American astronauts to low Earth orbit.

While the test vehicle that failed last week was a suborbital vehicle, Blue Origin is also developing an orbital space capsule designed initially to launch on an expendable Atlas 5 rocket, then transition to a reusable booster being developed by the company.

“In case you’re curious and wondering ‘where is the crew capsule,’ the development vehicle doesn’t have a crew capsule — just a close-out fairing instead,” Bezos added in a postscript to his website update. “We’re working on the sub-orbital crew capsule separately, as well as an orbital crew vehicle to support NASA’s Commercial Crew program.”