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Blue Origin launches six tourists to the edge of space after nearly two-year hiatus

Blue Origin’s tourism rocket has launched passengers to the edge of space for the first time in nearly two years, ending a hiatus prompted by a failed uncrewed test flight.

The New Shepard rocket and capsule lifted off at 9:36 a.m. CT (10:36 a.m. ET) from Blue Origin’s facilities on a private ranch in West Texas.

NS-25, Blue Origin’s seventh crewed flight to date, carried six customers aboard the capsule: venture capitalist Mason Angel; Sylvain Chiron, founder of the French craft brewery Brasserie Mont-Blanc; software engineer and entrepreneur Kenneth L. Hess; retired accountant Carol Schaller; aviator Gopi Thotakura; and Ed Dwight, a retired US Air Force captain selected by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 to be the nation’s first Black astronaut candidate.

Despite completing training at the Aerospace Research Pilot School and receiving an Air Force recommendation, Dwight ultimately didn’t make the NASA Astronaut Corps. He went on to become an entrepreneur and a sculptor; a new National Geographic documentary on Black astronauts, “The Space Race,” highlights Dwight’s pioneering story.

“I had no intention of being an astronaut. That was the last thing on my bucket list,” Dwight said in the documentary. “But once I was given the challenge, then everything changes.”

Dwight completed that challenge and reached the edge of space at the age of 90, making him the oldest person to venture to such heights, according to a spokesperson from Blue Origin.

“I thought I didn’t need it in my life,” Dwight said of the experience on Blue Origin’s livestream after the capsule touched down at 9:46 a.m. CT (10:46 a.m. ET). “But I lied. I really, really did need it.”

“It’s a life-changing experience,” he said. “Everybody needs to do this.”

The rocket booster landed safely a couple minutes prior to the capsule.

During the mission, the crew soared to more than three times the speed of sound, or more than 2,000 miles per hour. The rocket vaulted the capsule past the Kármán line, an area 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth’s surface that is widely recognized as the altitude at which outer space begins — but there’s a lot of gray area.

And at the peak of the flight, passengers experienced a few minutes of weightlessness and striking views of Earth through the cabin windows.

The launch followed the success of an uncrewed science mission in December — the New Shepard program’s first flight since the mishap more than a year earlier.

New Shepard’s 2022 failure

A New Shepard rocket and spacecraft were set to launch a batch of science instruments on September 12, 2022. But one minute into flight, the rocket endured Max Q — an aerospace term that refers to a moment of maximum stress on a vehicle. It occurs when the rocket is at a relatively low altitude — where the atmosphere is still fairly thick — but the spacecraft is moving at high speeds, creating a moment of intense pressure on the vehicle.

Around that time, the rocket appeared to emit a massive burst of flames. The New Shepard capsule, which rides atop the rocket, then initiated its launch abort system — firing up a small engine to blast itself safely away from the malfunctioning rocket. That system worked as intended, parachuting the capsule to a safe landing.

Blue Origin later revealed that the cause of the failure was a problem with the engine nozzle, a large cone that directs the flaming exhaust at the rocket’s bottom. Onboard computers accurately detected the failure and shut the engine down, according to the company.

No injuries were reported on the ground, and Blue Origin said the science payloads and the capsule could be flown again.

But the rocket, left without a functioning engine, smashed back into the ground and was destroyed. Typically after New Shepard launches, the rocket booster guides itself back to a safe upright landing so it can be flown again.

During a December interview with podcaster Lex Fridman, Bezos said the escape system that jettisoned the capsule to safety is the most difficult piece of engineering in the entire rocket — but “it is the reason that I am comfortable letting anyone go on New Shepard.”

“The (rocket) booster is as safe and reliable as we can make it,” Bezos added. “The power density is so enormous that it is impossible to ever be sure that nothing will go wrong. … So the only way to improve safety is to have an escape system.

“A tourism vehicle has to be designed in my view … to be as safe as one can make it,” he said. “You can’t make it perfectly safe. It’s impossible.”

Rocket fix and return to service

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches and is charged with ensuring public safety, oversaw an investigation into the failure. The probe revealed that the engine nozzle failed because it experienced higher temperatures than what the company had anticipated.

To fix the issue, Blue Origin said it implemented “design changes to the combustion chamber” — the area of the engine where fuel explosively mixes with oxidizer — and adjusted “operating parameters,” or the data that the company uses to model safe flights.

“Additional design changes to the nozzle have improved structural performance under thermal and dynamic loads,” the company said in a March 2023 statement.

The FAA formally concluded the mishap investigation on September 27, 2023, outlining 21 “corrective actions” Blue Origin needed to implement before returning to flight. The agency did not reveal details on what those actions were, noting the report “contains proprietary data and U.S  Export Control information and is not available for public release.”

The changes and New Shephard’s successful December flight teed up the company to restart its trips to space for thrill seekers.

Before the September 2022 failure, New Shepard rockets had flown 22 consecutive successful missions — including six with passengers on board. Bezos flew aboard the rocket in 2021. Other notable space tourists previously carried by the vehicle include “Star Trek” actor William Shatner and “Good Morning America” host Michael Strahan.

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