On Monday, 12 September, New Shepard NS-23 lifted off from Blue Origin’s Corn Ranch spaceport in West Texas. The capsule had no crew onboard, instead carrying 36 scientific payloads on a ride that would let them experience a few minutes of microgravity. This is a normal part of New Shepard’s commercial operations and last happened in August 2021.
At approximately T+1:01 the BE-3 rocket’s exhaust started to show impurities, which have been speculated to indicate debris having been ingested by the engine. By T+1:05 a big bright flame was coming from the engine, and the rocket started veering off course. The abort system activated automatically and the solid rocket motor mounted on the payload capsule fired, pulling it to safety. The capsule later landed under its own parachutes as it would have during a typical flight. The rocket, critically damaged, impacted the ground.
The accident resulted in no injuries. Had it been a crewed flight, the passengers would have been most likely fine, although the abort procedure would have made them experience some rough accelerations. The FAA has launched an investigation to shed light on the causes, grounding the New Shepard in the meantime.
The booster involved in the accident was the third one built, NS3, and was on its ninth flight. It was, together with NS4, one of the two active boosters in Blue Origin’s fleet. NS1 was destroyed on its first flight, while NS2 has been retired. While certainly impacting the company’s ability to fly frequently into space, the loss of one of the two boosters should not impact such ability too much, since all five previous flights had used NS4. Of course, any return to flight will have to wait for the results of the FAA investigation.