An experimental suborbital space vehicle developed by Blue Origin, a space startup founded by Amazon.com chief Jeff Bezos, was lost during a test flight last week, Bezos reports on his company’s website.
“A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we’re signed up for this to be hard,” Bezos wrote. “We’re already working on our next development vehicle.”
The vehicle was destroyed at an altitude of 45,000 feet. It was traveling at 1.2 times the speed of sound at the time.
The Kent, Wash.-based firm operates a test facility in West Texas. The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees commercial spaceflights, issued a notice to pilots to avoid a 17 nautical mile radius around Van Horn, Texas due to a space operation on Aug. 24.
There had been no further word about the launch until today, when the Wall Street Journal published a short article on its website saying that the spaceship “suffered a major failure” during a recent test flight. The article attributes the information to unnamed U.S. government and industry officials.
“The exact nature and cause of the failure were unclear, but remnants of the spacecraft could provide clues for investigators,” the WSJ reports. “Parts of the vehicle were recovered on the ground and are now being analyzed by company experts, according to government and industry officials.”
Blue Origin is among a half-dozen firms that have received NASA funding to develop technologies for commercial passenger spaceships. Blue Origin is working on a suborbital spaceship first — a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing reusable capsule it calls New Shepard. It is designed to carry three people for tourism and/or research flights.
The firm’s first contract with NASA was for $3.7 million to develop a composite crew test capsule and a launch escape system. Earlier this year, it received a follow-on contract, worth up to $22 million, to develop a reusable launcher to carry its planned seven-seater capsule to orbit.
In its proposal to NASA, Blue Origin said it will mature the technology for its orbital space vehicle, and begin testing a 100,000-lb.-thrust liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine for a “Reusable Booster System.”
What involvement, if any, NASA had with the company’s launch last week is not clear. Officials did not immediately return phone calls and emails for comment.
Image: Blue Origin’s experimental suborbital rocket — just before things went awry. Credit: Blue Origin