Updated 2 p.m. Eastern with official company stats.
WASHINGTON — Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle Dec. 19 on its first mission since a mishap more than 15 months ago.
New Shepard lifted off at 11:42 a.m. Eastern from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas. The capsule landed under parachutes 10 minutes and 13 seconds later, after reaching a peak altitude of 107 kilometers, while the propulsion module landed vertically using its engine nearly three minutes earlier.
The mission, called NS-24 by Blue Origin, was previously scheduled for Dec. 18 but scrubbed because of a ground system problem, after being delayed earlier in the morning because of cold weather conditions. The Dec. 19 launch took place after two brief holds in the countdown for unspecified technical issues.
The NS-24 mission carried 33 payloads, many of which were provided via NASA’s Flight Opportunities program, which arranges for flights of experiments and technology demonstrations on suborbital vehicles. The mission also carried 38,000 postcards from Club for the Future, an educational nonprofit affiliated with Blue Origin. There were no people on this flight.
More importantly, the launch was the return to flight of New Shepard after a September 2022 mishap when an engine problem triggered the launch abort motor in the capsule. The capsule, again carrying only payloads, landed safely, but the propulsion module was destroyed. A Blue Origin-led investigation concluded in March that the BE-3PM engine nozzle suffered structural failure caused by thermal damage. That damage, in turn, was linked to the engine running hotter than expected.
At the time it completed the investigation, Blue Origin said it would resume flights of New Shepard “soon,” but it took another six months for the Federal Aviation Administration to formally close the investigation and identify 21 corrective actions. At that time Blue Origin again said that it expected to resume flights “soon” starting with a reflight of the NS-23 payloads. Many of the payloads on NS-24 had also been on NS-23.
The company, during its webcast of the launch, did not mention the mishap or its efforts to return the vehicle to flight. It did note that the propulsion module used for NS-24 was making its ninth flight, indicating it is the booster that had been used for crewed New Shepard launches.
There had been speculation that Blue Origin would deemphasize New Shepard or even phase the vehicle out so it could devote resources to other projects, like its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle and Blue Moon lunar lander. Company representatives on the webcast, though, said that Blue Origin remained committed to New Shepard.
“Demand for our flights only continues to grow. We’re scaling the fleet, refining our repeatable processes to meet that growing demand,” said Erika Wagner.
Blue Origin didn’t elaborate on those efforts, but in addition to discussing the research flight opportunities on the webcast, the company mentioned it is continuing to sell seats on crewed New Shepard flights. The company has flown six crewed New Shepard flights carrying 31 people, one of whom flew twice. The most recent crewed flight was in August 2022.
“Following a thorough review of today’s mission,” Wagner said at the end of the webcast, “we look forward to flying our next crewed flight soon.”