The failure of an uncrewed Blue Origin mission today (Sept. 12) has an object lesson to space fans and casual observers alike: spaceflight continues to be hard.
Blue Origin launched its New Shepard vehicle on an uncrewed science mission to suborbital space today from West Texas. New Shepard’s first-stage booster suffered an anomaly in regards to a minute in to the flight, spurring the vehicle’s capsule to activate its emergency escape system. The capsule got itself from trouble and landed safely under parachutes, and the booster hit the bottom and was presumably destroyed.
It had been the initial serious problem for New Shepard because the suborbital vehicle’s first-ever spaceflight, in April 2015. On that debut mission, the brand new Shepard booster crashed during its touchdown attempt, though the rest went well.
From then on, the reusable New Shepard flew flawlessly 21 times in a row, carrying space tourists safely to the ultimate frontier and back on six of these missions. It seemed that Blue Origin had suborbital flight determined, that future missions would always run like clockwork until today.
In-flight failures are always startling, given the dramatic visuals that accompany them and the investment of money and time that every one incinerates. However the chance for failure should be in the trunk of our minds.
Rockets are complex machines riding controlled explosions high in to the sky, and the slightest problem can knock “controlled” out of this equation. The spacecraft side is not any picnic, either; the area environment is harsh, and vehicles returning to Earth experience extremes of velocity and temperature that may expose the slightest design or manufacturing flaw, sometimes to tragic effect.
Think about NASA’s iconic space shuttle program. It suffered catastrophic failures during two of its 135 missions, killing 14 astronauts. Among those tragedies the Challenger explosion, in January 1986 occurred during launch. Another Columbia, in February 2003 occurred once the orbiter was coming home to Earth.
This is simply not to choose on the shuttle program; we’re able to cite a great many other incidents to help make the same point. Among Astra’s rockets failed in June, for instance, resulting in the increased loss of two hurricane-studying NASA cubesats. And the lengthy set of 2021 mishaps includes launch failures by Rocket Lab’s Electron booster and India’s Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle, along with Russia’s Kosmos 2551 spy satellite, which didn’t adjust its orbit properly following a smooth liftoff.
To be clear: They are not one-to-one comparisons with today’s New Shepard incident. Going orbital requires higher energies, and is therefore a lot more difficult, than topping out at suborbital altitudes. But no group of spaceflight is simple.
It’s too early to state how today’s New Shepard anomaly will affect Blue Origin and space tourism generally in the years ahead; such questions must wait until Blue Origin understands what went wrong and how exactly to correct it. (The business uses different New Shepard vehicles to launch uncrewed and tourist flights, it is critical to note.)
But we are able to take one lesson from today’s events. Let’s cheer a bit more enthusiastically whenever a rocket helps it be to space and a mission even one which “only” goes suborbital ends successfully. Let’s not be cynical or blas. Space continues to be hard, and getting there and back remains something to celebrate.
Mike Wall may be the writer of “ON THE MARKET (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book concerning the seek out alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.