Bezos-Funded Spaceship Misfires

By ANDY PASZTOR

An unmanned spaceship funded by Internet billionaire Jeff Bezos suffered a major failure during a recent test flight, according to U.S. government and industry officials, highlighting the dramatic risks of private space ventures.

The vertical takeoff and landing spacecraft, developed by closely held Blue Origin LLC, was on a suborbital flight from the company’s West Texas spaceport last week, these officials said, when ground personnel lost contact and control of the vehicle. The exact nature and cause of the failure were unclear, but remnants of the spacecraft could provide clues for investigators.

Parts of the vehicle were recovered on the ground and are now being analyzed by company experts, according to government and industry officials.

The mishap dealt a potentially major blow to the ambitions of Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com Inc., to develop a reliable system for blasting tourists and astronauts out of the atmosphere.

The serious malfunctions, which haven’t been disclosed by the company or reported previously, also could set back White House plans to promote a range of commercially developed spacecraft to transport crews to the International Space Station by the second half of this decade.

Championed by President Barack Obama’s administration, the goal is to support a number of rival projects, including Blue Origin, to ensure that in the end the U.S. will have alternatives to reach the orbiting station, following last month’s permanent retirement of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space shuttle fleet.

A spokesman for Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., declined to comment. Officials at both NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration were told in advance about the launch and are aware of the failure, according to people familiar with the matter. But spokesmen for the agencies also declined to comment.

Mr. Bezos has been secretive about Blue Origin’s plans and even details of its isolated spaceport, about 25 miles north of tiny Van Horn, Texas. The company, among other things, has been working on a cone-shaped vehicle, dubbed New Shepard, that is believed to include a reusable crew module that will descend vertically back to Earth.

The company’s website describes it as a “rocket-propelled vehicle designed to routinely fly multiple astronauts” out of the atmosphere at “competitive prices,” with manned flights commencing as early as 2012. In the past, Blue Origin has predicted that once commercial tourist flights begin, it could launch as often as once a week.

NASA in recent years has doled out hundreds of millions in seed money— including more than $25 million earmarked for Blue Origin—to promote development of various private rockets and spacecraft. They are intended to serve as the next generation of simpler, less-expensive space taxis and trucks to go back and forth to the space station

According to NASA, the most recent award to Blue Origin is for work on a vehicle able to transfer up to seven astronauts to the orbiting station—first riding on top of a conventional Atlas V rocket and later powered by the company’s reusable booster system intended to “dramatically lower the cost of space access.” The federal money is targeted to speed development of a liquid-fueled engine and a novel crew-escape system.

Associated Press This photo released by Blue Origin shows an early version of its spacecraft, named Goddard, being moved back indoors in remote Culberson County in West Texas, after a test flight on Nov. 13, 2006.

This photo released by Blue Origin shows an early version of its spacecraft, named Goddard, being moved back indoors in remote Culberson County in West Texas, after a test flight on Nov. 13, 2006.

The latest event, however, isn’t expected to have a direct impact on Blue Origin’s access to federal dollars, government officials said, because the test didn’t rely on federal funds and wasn’t part of the company’s development agreement with NASA. It isn’t clear whether Blue Origin hopes to use some of the same hardware in its official NASA-funded work and testing.

The accident comes at a critical time for the NASA, with lawmakers and the White House locked in an increasingly bitter debate over how much federal effort and funding should be invested in commercial space systems. A strong bipartisan group of lawmakers is balking at White House proposals to beef up NASA support for commercial crew taxis.

The debate over assuring reliable follow-on systems to the space shuttles has intensified as a result of the recent failure of a Russian Soyuz cargo rocket to deliver goods to the space station. Unless Moscow’s experts resolve the problem quickly and then verify the safety of Soyuz boosters by successfully sending a pair of unmanned missions to the station before mid-November, Russian and U.S. officials have said they may have to leave the orbiting laboratory temporarily without a full-time crew.

During an appearance at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. in July, NASA chief Charles Bolden said the agency’s primary focus is to create “a viable domestic space industry, so that we don’t have to rely on international partners” to reach the space station.

Blue Origin is one of three commercial space ventures backed by superrich entrepreneurs, which have become the most recognized international symbols of privately funded spacecraft. The other two are Sir Richard Branson’s space-travel company Virgin Galactic and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp.

The trio of projects, all started within the past decade, roughly coincided with the success of SpaceShipOne, a rocketship designed by legendary aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, which won international acclaim as the first privately funded craft to reach space. That prompted widespread predictions that space tourism, along with a host of other start-up companies seeking to operate at the edges of the atmosphere, would replicate the excitement and boisterous growth of the era that followed early exploits of the Wright Brothers.

Despite the deep pockets of their backers, all three projects have suffered substantial delays.

Virgin Galactic, which is using Mr. Rutan’s rocketship design, originally suggested it could begin taking passengers up for thrill rides at the edge of space as early as 2008. Now, the company isn’t expected to complete flight tests for at least another year, and it has stopped publicly predicting the start of regular service.

Peter Diamandis, who ran the international competition that awarded a $10-million prize for Mr. Rutan’s pioneering flight, likes to say that in order “to have a really robust space industry,” proponents need to find ways “to develop an actual mass market.”

SpaceX, as Mr. Musk’s company is known, is years behind in testing its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon space capsule. But if all goes well, the Hawthorne, Calif., start-up could initiate regular cargo deliveries to the station next year. SpaceX also is competing with Blue Origin and other rivals to get the nod for the next round of NASA funding for commercially-developed crew vehicles.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

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