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Blue Origin Could Return to Space After FAA Investigation

The Federal Aviation Administration has closed its investigation into the flight of an uncrewed Blue Origin New Shepard rocket that ended with its booster destroyed and a capsule that had to use its emergency system.

Three celestial bodies in space with a bright star shining behind them.
(TNS) — The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday said it had closed its investigation into the flight of an uncrewed Blue Origin New Shepard rocket that ended with its booster destroyed and a capsule that had to use its emergency escape system.

The Sept. 12, 2022 “mishap” was due to a “structural failure of an engine nozzle caused by higher than expected engine operating temperatures,” according to a release from the FAA. With the nozzle too hot, it caused a trajectory change about one minute after liftoff from Blue Origin’s West Texas launch site.

The capsule on the NS-23 mission that was carrying science payloads performed as designed, though, blasting away from the booster after which it performed a parachute-assisted landing near the launch site.

“During the mishap, the onboard launch vehicle systems detected the anomaly, triggered an abort and separation of the capsule from the propulsion module as intended and shut down the engine,” the FAA statement reads. “The capsule landed safety and the propulsion module was destroyed upon impact with the ground.”

The investigation resulted in 21 corrective actions Blue Origin had to undertake, including a redesign of the engine and nozzle components so the rocket boosters won’t suffer the same fate on future missions.

While the rocket remains grounded for now, Blue Origin on its social media posted that flights would resume shortly.

“We’ve received the FAA’s letter and plan to fly soon,” a statement from the company said.

While the flight in question had no crew on board and featured a booster never used on human flights, the FAA grounded the rocket. Its launches were a big part of Blue Origin’s business, sending customers up on 10- to 12-minute suborbital flights, which began in summer 2021 when company founder Jeff Bezos and three others flew up past the Karman line, about 82 miles altitude, to experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth.

From July 2021 to August 2022, New Shepard launched six successful crewed flights taking up 31 people, including one person who flew on it twice. Passengers have included actor William Shatner, former NFL star and TV host Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, daughter of Alan Shepard, the first American in space for whom the rocket is named.

Winter Park couple finally makes it to space on Blue Origin flight

Three of its customers have been from Central Florida with Winter Park power couple Marc and Sharon Hagle who flew in March 2022 followed by Brevard County millionaire Steve Young in August 2022.

Sharon Hagle said the couple had already booked a second trip, but have been awaiting the FAA to approve New Shepard’s return to flight.

As part of FAA’s requirements after the incident, Blue Origin formed an investigation team with FAA oversight that included members from the National Transportation Safety Board and NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program and Commercial Crew Office.

The FAA’s final report, which is not available to the public citing proprietary data and U.S Export Control information, noted that public safety was maintained at all times with no injuries or public property damage.

“The closure of the mishap investigation does not signal an immediate resumption of New Shepard launches,” the FAA stated. “Blue Origin must implement all corrective actions that impact public safety and receive a license modification from the FAA that addresses all safety and other applicable regulatory requirements prior to the next New Shepard launch.”

Blue Origin to bring on former Amazon exec as CEO

The news is a boon for the company that just announced its CEO Bob Smith was stepping down in favor of former Amazon executive Dave Limp who will come on board in December.

While prices have not been revealed for the space tourism flights, it auctioned off a seat before its first human spaceflight for $28 million. Before it was grounded, the company had plans to ramp up to six flights a year.

Competitor Virgin Galactic, which flew its founder Richard Branson into space about two weeks earlier than Bezos’ flight in 2021, had its own FAA investigation after Branson’s trip, which led to a two-year lull between operations. It flew again with its first paying customers in May, and is now gearing up for the “Galactic 04” mission as soon as Oct. 5, marking the company’s fifth spaceflight of the year, and ninth to date including test flights.

The Hagles were among the early reservations for Virgin Galactic as well, but have yet to reveal when they might be flying.

When originally offered up, Virgin Galactic reservations were sold at $250,000, a price that grew to $450,000 when new reservations opened back up in early 2022. A company spokesperson in May said Virgin had more than 800 people lined up to fly on future flights.

While both companies could get into a high rate of space tourism trips, Blue Origin’s business plans include a spate of other space endeavors including the pursuit of the first launch of its New Glenn heavy-lift rocket from Cape Canaveral, a moon lander for NASA’s Artemis missions and a commercial space station called Orbital Reef.

© 2023 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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