An unmanned New Shepard rocket launched by Blue Origin — the company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos — malfunctioned Monday, causing the rocket engine to crash. An emergency exit system brought the capsule, which contained three dozen experiments, to safety.
The flight, which took off from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site, had no people on board. The rocket was the same design as New Shepard vehicles that have taken celebrities like Mr. Bezos, William Shatner and Michael Strahan to the edge of space.
The Federal Aviation Administration said it will investigate and suspend the company’s flights until it can determine “whether any system, process or procedure related to the mishap affects public safety.”
“This is standard practice in all roadside investigations,” the FAA said in a statement.
The New Shepard flights don’t enter Earth orbit, but are rather short ascents and descents that offer a few minutes of weightlessness at the top of the arc, which reaches more than 62 miles above the surface.
In addition to space tourism flights, Blue Origin also sells New Shepard flights as a cost-effective way for scientists to conduct near-zero-gravity experiments.
On Monday, one minute and four seconds after launch, as the New Shepard rocket went through the period known as max-Q – when the vehicle is subjected to forces at maximum atmospheric pressure – a large yellow flame erupted from the booster’s engine. As the booster began to tip over, an emergency abort system quickly propelled the capsule carrying the experiments away from the failed booster.
“It looks like we experienced an anomaly on today’s flight,” said Erika Wagner, the commentator during Blue Origin’s live coverage of the launch. “It wasn’t planned and we don’t have any details yet.”
The capsule reached an altitude of more than 37,000 feet, or about seven miles, far less than normal flight.
After deploying the parachutes, the capsule landed perhaps a little harder than usual in the Texas desert.
“Booster failure on today’s unmanned flight,” Blue Origin later reported on Twitter. “Escape system executed as intended.”
Blue Origin said no one on the ground was hurt by the mishap.