NS-20 liftoff
Blue Origin's New Shepard lifts off March 31, 2022, on the NS-20 suborbital missions. Credit: Blue Origin webcast

WASHINGTON — Blue Origin has announced plans to launch its New Shepard suborbital vehicle on its first flight since a mishap more than 15 months ago.

Blue Origin announced on social media Dec. 12 that it will launch its New Shepard vehicle no earlier than Dec. 18 from its West Texas test site. The vehicle will carry 33 experiments as well as 38,000 postcards from Club for the Future, the educational nonprofit affiliated with the company. The flight will be uncrewed.

The mission, designated NS-24, would be the first for New Shepard since a mishap on a September 2022 flight, NS-23, that also was uncrewed. A problem with the vehicle’s main engine triggered the crew capsule’s abort motor about a minute after liftoff. The capsule landed safely while the propulsion module crashed.

Blue Origin said in March that it concluded its investigation into the mishap, finding that the BE-3PM engine in the propulsion module suffered a structural failure of its nozzle. That failure was linked to thermal damage caused by operating temperatures higher than designed.

However, it took six months for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to close the mishap investigation, identifying 21 corrective actions for the company to undertake before flying again. Those actions ranged from technical modifications to the engine to unspecified “organizational changes.”

When the FAA closed the investigation Sept. 26, Blue Origin said it would resume flights “soon” but did not offer a more specific timeframe. In June, Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin at the time, said the company was ready to resume flights “within the next few weeks.” Smith announced Sept. 25 he would step down as CEO in December, and the company is now led by a former Amazon executive, Dave Limp.

The company has not elaborated on the long delay in returning New Shepard to flight. That delay led to speculation that the company was deemphasizing, or might phase out, New Shepard to free up resources for other company priorities. Since the vehicle’s last flight in September 2022 the company won a NASA contract to develop a version of its Blue Moon lunar lander for NASA’s Human Landing System program, unveiled an orbital transfer vehicle called Blue Ring, and continued work on its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and Orbital Reef commercial space station projects.

During the hiatus in New Shepard launches, Virgin Galactic started commercial service with its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, VSS Unity, performing six flights, five of which were commercial, in less than six months. However, Virgin Galactic announced Nov. 8 that it would shift from monthly to quarterly flights of Unity in the first half of 2024 and then stop then entirely to ensure it had sufficient resources to complete development of its new Delta-class suborbital vehicles.

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...