Blue Origin: NS-23 Failure Due to Engine Nozzle Overheating

Blue Origin: NS-23 Failure Due to Engine Nozzle Overheating

Blue Origin said today the failure of the New Shepard-23 launch last September was due to an engine nozzle failure. No one was injured. The capsule was carrying a variety of scientific payloads, not people, and landed safely. Those payloads will fly again on the next New Shepard flight. The FAA says its investigation remains open while it reviews Blue Origin’s report and FAA approval is needed before that next flight takes place.

The suborbital New Shepard rocket is powered by a BE-3 engine produced by Blue Origin. A structural failure of the engine nozzle due to overheating created a “thrust misalignment” that triggered the crew capsule escape system. The escape system did what it was intended to do and the capsule made a safe landing.

The overheating was traced to a design change to the engine’s boundary layer cooling system that is now being rectified. The company expects to resume flights “soon.”

This is the first public release of information about what happened on September 12, 2022 when the New Shepard rocket crashed back to Earth.

New Shepard is reusable and usually makes a controlled landing back on its launch pad after propelling the capsule across the Von Karman line at 100 kilometers altitude that divides air and space. The two separate and the rocket returns to the launch pad while the capsule spends a few minutes in space and then descends and lands separately under parachute. The entire flight time is about 10 minutes.

Touchdown of Blue Origin’s NS-21 rocket after a successful flight on June 4, 2022. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin, founded and owned by Jeff Bezos, launches New Shepard from a site in West Texas near Van Horn. Until this flight, all the launches except the first in 2015 were successful.

The capsule can carry people or other payloads. Beginning on July 20, 2021, the company focused on passenger flights with seven successes in a row taking 31 people to space. Bezos himself and his brother, Mark, were on the first crewed flight and several luminaries, incuding Star Trek actor William Shatner, have flown since then.

On this 23rd flight, NS-23, things did not go according to plan. Fortunately this flight did not have anyone aboard. The rocket and capsule separated before reaching 100 kilometers and the rocket crashed. Blue Origin livestreamed the launch until the failure happened. They later tweeted video showing the safe landing of the capsule, which is designed to fire thrusters just as it touches down to soften the landing, spewing up a cloud of dust.

Video of the booster crash has not been made public, but Blue Origin said today all the debris stayed within the designated area and posed no safety risks. All critical flight hardware was recovered within days.

The safe landing of the capsule with its 36 payloads is being heralded as a demonstration of effective safety systems. All the payloads are fine and will be reflown on the next launch.

No date was given for that launch and the company needs FAA approval first. The FAA regulates the commercial space launch and reentry business. In an emailed statement this afternoon they said their investigation remains open and their approval is required to close it and for New Shepard to return to flight.

“The FAA-required investigation into the Sept. 12, 2022, Blue Origin NS-23 launch mishap remains open. The agency is currently reviewing the company’s submission of its mishap report. FAA approval is required to close the investigation and for the New Shepard System to return to flight. Learn more about the FAA Commercial Space Mishap Response Program here.”

Blue Origin said the investigation by the Mishap Investigation Team, led by members of its Safety & Mission Assurance organization, was conducted with FAA oversight and included representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program and Commercial Crew Office. The company also convened a Mission Review Board of external non-advocate advisors that “will continue to exercise oversight of the corrective action implementation.”

New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space. He made a 15-minute suborbital flight on May 5, 1961, three weeks after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space on April 12, 1961. Gagarin’s flight was orbital, however, not suborbital. The first American to reach orbit was John Glenn on February 20, 1962. Bezos is building the New Glenn rocket for orbital missions with the inaugural flight anticipated next year.


This article has been updated.

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