Friday, September 2, 2011
Blue Origin Spacecraft Misfires
An artist's concept of the Blue Origin crew vehicle. Image source: Space.com.
The Wall Street Journal reports that a Blue Origin test spacecraft "suffered a major failure during a recent test flight, according to U.S. government and industry officials ..."
The vertical takeoff and landing spacecraft, developed by closely held Blue Origin LLC, was on a suborbital flight from the company's West Texas spaceport last week, these officials said, when ground personnel lost contact and control of the vehicle. The exact nature and cause of the failure were unclear, but remnants of the spacecraft could provide clues for investigators.
Parts of the vehicle were recovered on the ground and are now being analyzed by company experts, according to government and industry officials.
Reporter Andy Pasztor wrote that the accident highlights "the dramatic risks of private space ventures," overlooking the basic fact that this is a test flight. Pasztor claimed that the mishap "could set back White House plans to promote a range of commercially developed spacecraft to transport crews to the International Space Station by the second half of this decade," without offering any evidence to support such a notion.
The Commercial Crew Development program, in fact, is designed specifically to weed out companies that can't achieve their objectives. If Blue Origin can't demonstrate their technology works, then they don't get seed money from NASA and won't win a contract when NASA releases its formal request for proposals in 2012.
The Wall Street Journal was purchased in 2007 by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which also owns Fox News.
UPDATE 7:45 PM EDT — Blue Origin responds on their web site to the WSJ article:
Three months ago, we successfully flew our second test vehicle in a short hop mission, and then last week we lost the vehicle during a developmental test at Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 45,000 feet. A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard, and the Blue Origin team is doing an outstanding job. We're already working on our next development vehicle.
The Blue Origin test vehicle about to land on its "short hop" mission three months ago. Photo source: Blue Origin.
The article concludes with this P.S.:
In case you're curious and wondering "where is the crew capsule," the development vehicle doesn't have a crew capsule — just a close-out fairing instead. We're working on the sub-orbital crew capsule separately, as well as an orbital crew vehicle to support NASA's Commercial Crew program.
In other words ... This vehicle had nothing to do with Commercial Crew Development. The Wall Street Journal got the story wrong.
UPDATE September 3, 2011 — MSNBC space reporter Alan Boyle in his Cosmic Log comments on the Blue Origin incident.
Blue Origin's experimental rocket ship crashed last week when a high-altitude flight test went awry, says Amazon.com billionaire Jeff Bezos, who founded the secretive rocket venture 11 years ago. The Aug. 24 mishap marks a setback for Blue Origin's efforts to develop a spaceship capable of carrying tourists on suborbital space rides ...
The Aug. 24 test involved the suborbital spaceship, rather than the work covered by NASA's agreement with Blue Origin.
The NewSpace Journal blog comments on the misleading reporting by The Wall Street Journal:
It’s worth remembering that this was, by all accounts, a test flight. And, by their nature, not all test flights are successful: that’s why you fly to, to find problems and correct them. Moreover, the loss of PM 2 is hardly the first time a vehicle has been lost in a test flight, either by a company or a government agency. It’s the nature of aerospace. By Bezos’s account, he sounds ready to move ahead, undaunted by the failure. There’s also a lesson for some in the media as well, to not overreact from a single test failure (or, for that matter, a single successful test).