A Parachute Failed to Deploy During Jeff Bezos’ Space Tourism Comeback Mission

A Parachute Failed to Deploy During Jeff Bezos’ Space Tourism Comeback Mission

Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has launched an investigation following an incident during its first crewed flight in two years, in which one of the parachutes on the New Shepard capsule failed to fully inflate.

The company’s New Shepard rocket launched on May 19 carrying a six-person crew to suborbital space. The NS-25 mission saw the crew capsule land to conclude the flight, but only two of its three parachutes were fully inflated, SpaceNews reported. Steve Stich, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, recently revealed the issue during a briefing on the upcoming Boeing Starliner crewed test flight. Blue Origin had not made the issue with its parachute public, but instead briefed NASA officials regarding the anomaly since vehicles like Boeing’s Starliner use similar components.

New Shepard uses three parachutes to decelerate the crew capsule as it makes its way back to Earth, although it can land with just one parachute fully deployed. The parachutes are designed to open in three stages, but during the NS-25 mission, one of the three parachutes failed at the very first stage when a line controlling its inflation was not cut like it was supposed to, according to Stich.

“It’s a small group of people who work on these parachutes,” Stich is quoted in SpaceNews as saying. “They’ve been great at sharing data with us. They don’t really have any kind of root cause yet, and we continue to follow along with them.”

Bezos’ private space venture resumed its space tourism program with the NS-25 mission after nearly two years of its rocket being grounded. In September 2022, an uncrewed flight of New Shepard ended in flames around a minute after liftoff. The rocket’s booster exploded mid-flight and its capsule abandoned ship while traveling at roughly 700 miles per hour (1,130 kilometers per hour) and at 29,000 feet (8,840 meters) above the ground.

Blue Origin identified a “thermo-structural failure of the engine nozzle” as the reason behind the rocket’s failed launch. At the time, New Shepard was carrying 36 payloads, more than half of which belonged to NASA, but there was no crew on board the capsule. The company resumed its space tourism operations with its seventh human spaceflight on May 19, marking a comeback after the previous liftoff malfunction. We don’t yet know the severity of the parachute problem or if it will cause further delays. While we’re not parachute experts, it’s fair to say this is concerning; if one parachute fails to deploy, it could indicate the potential for multiple failures during descent.

As a related aside, engineers on the Boeing Starliner program detected their own parachute problem, one that delayed the first crewed flight of the capsule. A few weeks before the planned liftoff on July 21, 2023, Starliner teams discovered that the fabric sections of the parachutes had a lower failure load limit than expected. This meant that if one parachute failed, the remaining two would not be able to slow down the Starliner vehicle sufficiently for a safe landing in New Mexico. In March 2024, Boeing announced that it had resolved the safety issue.

The issue with the parachutes stems from the difficulty in accurately simulating the environment in which they deploy. “Even today, with all the technology we have and everything else, as far as we’ve come with parachutes, we still can’t model a parachute inflating,” Stich said, according to SpaceNews. “It looks like it should be easy. It’s still a little bit hard.”

Image: New Shepard

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