Blue Origin’s New Shepard failure is a reminder that spaceflight is still difficult

The failure of Blue Origin’s unmanned mission today (September 12) provides an object lesson to space lovers and casual observers: space travel is still difficult.

This morning, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard spacecraft on an unmanned science mission into suborbital space from West Texas. About a minute after the launch of the New Shepard’s first-stage booster, an anomaly occurred, causing the ship’s capsule to activate an emergency escape system. The capsule eluded trouble and landed safely under the parachutes, while the booster hit the ground and presumably disintegrated.

This was the first major problem for New Shepard since the first-ever suborbital spaceflight in April 2015. On that debut mission, the New Shepard booster crashed during a landing attempt, although everything else went well.

Space travel: danger at every stage (infographic)

Since then, the reusable New Shepard has flown flawlessly 21 consecutive times, safely ferrying space tourists to and from the final frontier on six of those missions. It seemed that Blue Origin had sorted out suborbital flight, that future missions would always run like clockwork—until now.

In-flight crashes always start, given the dramatic visuals that come with them and the time and money cost each one burns. But the possibility of failure must always be at the back of our minds.

Rockets are complex machines that control controlled explosions high in the sky, and the slightest problem can knock “controlled” out of the equation. As far as spaceships go, this isn’t a picnic either; The space environment is harsh, and vehicles returning to Earth experience extreme speeds and temperatures that can reveal the slightest design or manufacturing flaw, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Think of NASA’s iconic space shuttle program. It suffered disastrous failures during two of its 135 missions, which resulted in the deaths of 14 astronauts. One such tragedy, the Challenger explosion in January 1986, occurred during launch. The other, Columbia, in February 2003, occurred as the orbiter was returning home to Earth.

This is not to quibble with the shuttle program; we could cite many other cases to emphasize the same. In June, for example, one of Astra’s rockets failed, resulting in the loss of two NASA satellites studying hurricanes. And the long list of failures in 2021 includes the failed launches of Rocket Lab’s Elektron launch vehicle and India’s geosynchronous satellite launcher, as well as the Russian spy satellite Kosmos 2551, which failed to properly adjust its orbit after a smooth launch.

To be clear, this is not a direct comparison to today’s New Shepard incident. Going into orbit requires much higher energies and is therefore much more difficult than reaching suborbital heights. But no category of space flight is easy.

It’s too early to tell how today’s New Shepard anomaly will affect Blue Origin and space tourism in general going forward; such questions should wait until Blue Origin figures out what went wrong and how to fix it. (It’s important to note that the company uses a variety of New Shepard vehicles to run unmanned and touring flights.)

But we can learn one lesson from today’s events. Let’s cheer with great enthusiasm when the rocket goes into space and the mission – even the one that “just” takes place in suborbital orbit – is completed successfully. Let’s not be cynical or blasé. Space is still tough, and getting there and back is something to celebrate.

Mike Wall is the author of Out There (will open in a new tab)(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.

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