Blue Origin Failure Causes Reality Check for Commercial Space Flight

Mark Whittington – Sat Sep 3, 4:50 pm ET

Blue Origin Blue Origin's development vehicle is shown rising to 45,000 feet, just before the activation of its termination system.

An unmanned rocket launched by Blue Origin, a private rocket company owned by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, had to be destroyed in flight during a test flight at that company’s Texas launch facility.

According to a Wall Street Journal story, the problem stemmed from a “flight instability” caused by a failure of thrusters to respond to ground commands. The range safety system cut off the thrusters and destroyed the vehicle.

The flight test took place last week, but the secretive Blue Origin did not reveal the failure until Friday. The rocket ship was not funded under the Obama administration’s commercial crew program in which Blue Origin is a participant.

Launch failures are not an uncommon occurrence in developing space craft. The early United States Space program experienced numerous rocket failures that created huge explosions in flight and errant spacecraft that veered off course. SpaceX experienced three launch failures of its Falcon 1 space launcher before experiencing a success.

Blue Origin’s failure does provide a reality check for the commercial crew program, upon which America’s hope of getting back into the space launch business rests. Later this fall, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct a test of an unmanned version of its Dragon spacecraft launched by its Falcon 9. A previous test of the Dragon/Falconwas entirely successful. However, even one launch failure could set back the SpaceX program by months or even years, potentially costing more hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies.

SpaceX and Blue Origin are not the only participants in the commercial crew program. Boeing is developing the CST-100, to be launched on an upgraded commercial launcher. Sierra Nevada is developing a lifting body spacecraft called the Dreamchaser.

The commercial crew initiative is predicated on the notion that only one commercial spaceship has to succeed in order to be successful. However funding uncertainties and the normal technical challenges that surround space craft development, whether run by NASA, the Defense Department, or a commercial company, suggests that it is not just a question of if, but when a commercial option will come on line.

Heady predictions of commercial space flight once predicted that suborbital tourist rides would be operational by 2008, three years ago. Despite progress on a suborbital tourist spaceship by Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic, there is still no certain date when such jaunts will begin.

In the meantime, the failure of the Russian Progress cargo ship has placed the reliability of the Russian Soyuz, which has similar hardware, in doubt. There is actual talk that the International Space Station may have to be abandoned for lack of an effective way to get to it. It is a remarkably aggravating state of affairs

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker . He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

 

More on the failure from CosmicLog

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