Editorial: The Quiet Company

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One need not buy into the entertainment industry axiom that there’s no such thing as bad publicity to recognize its core element of irony-tinged truth in the recent test failure that destroyed Blue Origins’ prototype New Shepard rocket.

The secretive entrepreneurial space venture, bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, acknowledged the mishap on its website Sept. 2, more than a week after it occurred over the company’s remote western Texas launch site and several hours after it was reported in The Wall Street Journal.

Oddly enough, the failure, or more precisely the resulting disclosure, has shined a light on Blue Origins’ impressive progress to date.

The company is developing the New Shepard rocket to carry paying customers into suborbital space and back, according to its sparsely populated website. Blue Origins also envisions providing frequent flight opportunities for microgravity experiments.

In a rare website update — the previous update is dated Jan. 2, 2007 — Mr. Bezos said the New Shepard prototype, a can-shaped vehicle that takes off and lands vertically, went off course after it had reached a speed of Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet, or 13,636 meters.

“A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle,” Mr. Bezos said. “Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job.”

Indeed. For comparison purposes, the highest altitude ever achieved by the Boeing-built Delta Clipper-X rocket, whose development was funded by the precursor to the deep-pocketed U.S. Missile Defense Agency and which resembles the New Shepard test vehicle in how it was designed to operate, was 3,180 meters.

For the privately funded New Shepard prototype to fly three times higher is a remarkable achievement that demonstrates, among other things, that Mr. Bezos is serious — he’s obviously spending real money and has assembled a very capable technical team. “We’re already working on our next development vehicle,” he said in his Sept. 2 update.

 And while the failure is by his own admission a setback for Blue Origin, to suggest, as some have, that it somehow reflects negatively on the nascent commercial spaceflight industry misses a larger point: Here is yet another company that is actually building and flying rocket hardware. Moreover, mishaps are part and parcel of the space business; the only surefire way to avoid them is to not fly.

The question is, who would have known just how far Blue Origin has come if rumors of the mishap, culminating in the Wall Street Journal report, had not drawn the company out of the shadows, if only briefly. Contrast that with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture, which by virtue of its high-profile benefactor, flight heritage and willingness to engage the public has become the face of the suborbital space tourism industry.

As a privately owned company doing development work on its own dime, Blue Origin is of course well with in its rights to be stingy with information about its plans, schedule and progress. But the company is now taking public money; in April it was awarded $22 million in NASA Commercial Crew Development-2 funding for engine and crew escape system development work. The company’s website says this work is for an orbital vehicle and separate from the New Shepard suborbital effort, but the line between the two appears pretty thin: Both will need a crew escape system, for example.

But even setting aside disclosure responsibilities that go with the acceptance of U.S. taxpayer dollars — NASA’s investment does appear to be relatively small — Mr. Bezos might want to loosen his veil of secrecy a bit. This would help his own cause by boosting the company’s chances of attracting outside investment, a route it might want to take some day, as well as sowing the seeds for future commercial business.

It also would help boost the credibility of a commercial spaceflight industry that over the years has had its fair share of big talkers who lacked the wherewithal to make good. Mr. Bezos and Blue Origin have the opposite problem, which seems unfortunate: This is a company with a good story to tell.