Last month the small community of people who closely follow the NewSpace field expected a test flight by ultra-secretive Blue Origin, based on a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) issued by the FAA warning of “rocket launch activity” by the company at its launch site in west Texas on August 24. that date came and went without any news, which is not surprising given how the company closely rations information about its activity.
Late today came news that the test flight did not go well. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report that the vehicle suffered a malfunction in flight and was destroyed. The initial report indicated that the failure took place when ground controllers lost contact with the vehicle during the flight. The vehicle was either severely damaged or destroyed; “parts of the vehicle were recovered on the ground and are now being analyzed by company experts,” the Journal article reported. An unnamed local official in the nearby town of Van Horn, Texas, claimed in an interview with Forbes.com that some locals saw the launch failure, likening it (with some amount of hyperbole, no doubt) to the Challenger accident.
In a rare public statement, Blue Origin posted a brief note to the “Updates” page of its web site late Friday afternoon. “[L]ast week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet,” the statement, signed by Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (of Amazon.com fame), reads. “A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle.” Included in the update were several images from the test flight and a previous, successful one in May. Although Blue Origin has posted information about research opportunities and job openings, this is the first update about its flight test activities posted in exactly 56 months: the first, and only other one, is dated January 2, 2007. (The page does disclaim, in understated language, “We won’t make these updates frequently.”)
The company disclosed few other details about the vehicle, which is known as “PM 2″ in its experimental permit with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Bezos did note that they did “a short hop mission” three months ago; that took place on May 6, according to the list of permitted launches on the FAA’s web site (not yet updated to include the August launch failure.) The “PM” designation suggests this is a propulsion module in Blue Origin’s two-stage suborbital vehicle design, with a separate crew module; Bezos notes in a postscript to his statement that “the development vehicle doesn’t have a crew capsule”, only a round fairing. “We’re working on the sub-orbital crew capsule separately, as well as an orbital crew vehicle to support NASA’s Commercial Crew program,” he adds.
Bezos, in his note, sounded undaunted by the failure. “Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job,” he wrote. “We’re already working on our next development vehicle.”
Some in the media, though, tried to unnecessarily play up the implications of the test flight failure. “The mishap, which industry officials said occurred last Wednesday, dealt a potentially major blow to the ambitions of Mr. Bezos,” claimed Andy Pasztor in his Wall Street Journal article, even though Bezos himself didn’t sound overly concerned in his message. Later, noting that Blue Origin is one of four companies with 2nd round NASA Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) awards, Pasztor suggested that “The failure also could set back White House plans to promote commercially developed spacecraft to transport crews to the international space station by the second half of this decade,” even though the test flight did not appear to be directly related to their separate CCDev-2 work, as Bezos also indicated in his note.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal published a blog post with the curious title “Rich Guys Have No Luck in Space”. The text of the blog post, though, doesn’t match the headline: some of those profiled seem to have had, or are having, at least halfway decent luck: Paul Allen was successful, for example, backing SpaceShipOne in the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE, while Elon Musk is enjoying some technical and business success at SpaceX after some early launch failures of its Falcon 1.
It’s worth remembering that this was, by all accounts, a test flight. And, by their nature, not all test flights are successful: that’s why you fly to, to find problems and correct them. Moreover, the loss of PM 2 is hardly the first time a vehicle has been lost in a test flight, either by a company or a government agency. It’s the nature of aerospace. By Bezos’s account, he sounds ready to move ahead, undaunted by the failure. There’s also a lesson for some in the media as well, to not overreact from a single test failure (or, for that matter, a single successful test).