New Shepard plume
Blue Origin's New Shepard just before its capsule fired its launch escape motor on a Sept. 12, 2022, launch. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin says it is preparing to resume flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle after completing an investigation into a failed launch last September.

Blue Origin announced March 24 that its investigation into the NS-23 launch concluded that the nozzle in the BE-3PM engine in the rocket’s propulsion module suffered a structural failure that caused a thrust misalignment. That triggered the abort motor in the vehicle’s crew capsule, taking it away from the propulsion module. The capsule, which carried payloads but no people on the Sept. 12 flight, landed safely under parachutes.

The propulsion module, called Tail 3 by the company, shut down the BE-3PM engine after the nozzle failure, and crashed within a predicted area at the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas. A mishap investigation team organized by Blue Origin recovered “all critical flight hardware” within days of the mishap.

That investigation found evidence structural fatigue failure in the engine nozzle, which it linked to temperatures that exceeded its design. “Forensic evaluation of the recovered nozzle fragments also showed clear evidence of thermal damage and hot streaks resulting from increased operating temperatures,” the company stated. “The fatigue location on the flight nozzle is aligned with a persistent hot streak identified during the investigation.”

Ground tests of the engine found that its flight configuration was running hotter than expected. Investigators concluded “design changes made to the engine’s boundary layer cooling system accounted for an increase in nozzle heating and explained the hot streaks present.” The company did not elaborate on the nature of the design changes.

Blue Origin said that it is making design changes to the combustion chamber of the BE-3PM and its operating parameters. Additional, unspecified design changes to the nozzle also improved its structural performance.

The company said it would resume flights of New Shepard “soon” starting with the reflight of the payload-only NS-23 mission. It was not more specific about the schedule and did not state when it would resume crewed flights.

The company had said little about the investigation in the six months since the mishap. “We will get to the bottom of it,” said Gary Lai, chief architect of New Shepard at Blue Origin, during a talk at a suborbital research conference Feb. 28. “I can’t talk about specific timelines or plans for when we will resolve that situation other than to say that we fully intend to be back in business as soon as we are ready.”

“We are still closing out the investigation. We’re working very closely with the FAA,” said Ariane Cornell, vice president of commercial orbital, astronaut and international sales at Blue Origin, during a panel at the Satellite 2023 conference March 15. “We’re going into very deep, deep detail on that.”

She said that the company was planning to return New Shepard to flight “by the end of this year,” but was not more specific. She noted that escape system on the vehicle worked “perfectly” on NS-23, a point the company emphasized in its statement about the investigation: “The Crew Capsule escape system worked as designed, bringing the capsule and its payloads to a safe landing at Launch Site One with no damage.”

Cornell noted the company had not lost any customers for its crewed flights since the mishap. “Demand continues to be strong,” she said. “We continue to have customers signing up for New Shepard. Some of those even asked to fly an ‘escape’ mission because it seemed so exciting. We have politely declined.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...