NS-23 abort
The New Shepard capsule fired its launch abort motor to get away from its booster after a malfunction about a minute after liftoff on an uncrewed mission Sept. 12. Credit: New Shepard webcast

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Nearly six months after an in-flight anomaly on a New Shepard suborbital mission, Blue Origin says it is still investigating the mishap and has no firm schedule for resuming launches.

Speaking at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference here Feb. 28, Gary Lai, chief architect for New Shepard at Blue Origin, said the company was continuing to investigate the Sept. 12 uncrewed mission, designated NS-23. On that flight, the crew capsule, which had experiments but no people on board, fired its launch escape motor about a minute after liftoff from the company’s West Texas test site.

The company has provided few updates about the status of the investigation since the incident and has not estimated either when the investigation would be complete or when New Shepard flights would resume.

“We are investigating that anomaly now, the cause of it,” he said after a talk about New Shepard at the conference. “We will get to the bottom of it. 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.”

The abort system on the crew capsule, he later said, operated as designed. There had been reports that payloads in the capsule experienced accelerations of up to 15 times the force of gravity, as least briefly, as the capsule flew away from the propulsion module and parachuted to a safe landing.

“I can tell you with certainty that the acceleration environment that we experienced was exactly what we predicted. It was exactly as the astronauts were trained for,” he said, noting there was a difference between transient accelerations like shocks and sustained accelerations. “Everything went according to plan.”

Future of New Shepard payload flights

The NS-23 mission was the 12th New Shepard flight that carried research payloads, either as a dedicated research flight or as part of the New Shepard vehicle testing program. Those flights have carried more than 100 commercial payloads, he said.

Such dedicated payload flights will be less prominent going forward. “We expect that in the near future, the coming year, suborbital tourism will dominate our flights,” he said, predicting that Blue Origin will support “about a couple” dedicated payload missions a year, the same as it has, even as the number of private astronaut flights grows.

The company is offering new research opportunities. That includes flying payloads on New Shepard’s propulsion module, something he said can be done on both research and tourism flights. While there is less room on the propulsion module for payloads, he said there will be an option to allow payloads to be exposed for sampling the atmosphere or even deploy instruments.

Another new option will be a reduced gravity flight, where the crew capsule is spun after deployment to create lunar gravity conditions for a few minutes. Blue Origin is under contract from NASA for a such a flight tentatively planned for later this year.

Blue Origin is looking at options for human-tended experiments, he said, such as replacing seats with experiment racks. It is also working with NASA about flying government researchers and astronauts through the agency’s Suborbital Crew program.

The company is separately studying upgrades to New Shepard, although Lai said the changes would focus on operations. “The customers probably won’t see a huge difference,” he said, with Blue Origin instead working to reduce the turnaround time between flights. “That has always been the ultimate objective for New Shepard, to learn how to make spaceflight routine.”

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...