NASA spaceflight partner Blue Origin suffered a cringe-inducing setback on August 24, when one of their test spacecraft lost control and ended up in pieces on the desert floor near Van Horn, TX. News of the failure was released by the secretive spaceflight company on Friday, September 2, almost two weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration published a temporary flight restriction notice for airspace surrounding the Blue Origin test facility. The notice had previously served as the only indication that Blue Origin was preparing to test a rocket.
Blue Origin’s founder Jeff Bezos authored the press release on the company website, as he previously did on January 2, 2007 – the last time the site had been updated. The billionaire founder of Amazon.com starts the statement by revealing details of a previous successful flight test that took place “three months ago,” according to the post. Pictures show a plain, cylindrical object lifting off of a concrete launch pad during what Bezos terms a “short hop” test, before settling back down onto its pad and terminating its engines.
Whereas the short hop test was low-altitude, Bezos said August 24th’s failure occurred at 45,000 ft., at a speed of Mach 1.2. It remains unclear whether the vehicle was destroyed with explosives or forced to crash land — the statement says a “flight instability” occurred, causing a range safety system to terminate the vehicle’s thrust. Similar range safety systems are used by NASA to ensure out-of-control rockets don’t threaten populated areas; the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters were destroyed after the Challenger orbiter and external fuel tank disintegrated in 1986.
The press release finishes with the company’s motto, “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is latin for “step-by-step, ferociously.” The company’s logo resembles a medieval coat of arms featuring the phrase along with two turtles poised over the Earth.
So what does this mean for the current uncertain climate of human spaceflight? Luckily for Blue Origin, the failed vehicle is not directly related to their partnership with NASA. That partnership centers around the development of a crew capsule that will send humans and supplies on orbital flights to the International Space Station, whereas the vehicle that failed on August 24th is part of a separate, suborbital program that could potentially carry scientists and tourists above the boundary of space for a few minutes.
Blue Origin’s NASA crew capsule does not yet have a means of propulsion to get to orbit – presumably, the company would partner with United Launch Alliance, which is working closely with NASA to get its Atlas V rockets certified to carry human payload into space. Boeing has already officially announced a similar pairing with United Launch Alliance for its crew capsule, and it is expected that Blue Origin, along with NASA partner Sierra Nevada, would employ similar arrangements. Out of the four commercial partners vying to send humans to the International Space Station, only SpaceX has its own rocket system.