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Parachute failed to deploy during Jeff Bezos’ space tourism return mission

Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has opened an investigation following an incident during its first crewed flight in two years, during which one of the New capsule’s parachutes Shepard was unable to fully inflate himself.

The company’s New Shepard rocket launched on May 19, carrying a crew of six into 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, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, recently revealed the problem during a briefing on the upcoming crewed test flight of the Boeing Starliner. Blue Origin has not made the problem with its parachute public, but instead informed NASA officials of the anomaly, because vehicles like Boeing’s Starliner use similar components.

New Shepard uses three parachutes to decelerate the crew capsule as it returns to Earth, although it can land with only one parachute fully deployed. The parachutes are designed to open in three stages, but during the NS-25 mission, one of the three parachutes ruptured in the first stage when a rope controlling its inflation was not cut as it was supposed to, according to Stich.

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

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

Blue Origin identified a “thermostructural failure of the engine nozzle” as the reason for the rocket’s launch failure. At the time, New Shepard carried 36 payloads, more than half of which belonged to NASA, but there was no crew aboard the capsule. The company resumed space tourism activities with its seventh human spaceflight on May 19, marking a comeback after the previous liftoff malfunction. We do not yet know the severity of the parachute problem or whether it will cause further delays. Although we are not parachute experts, it is fair to say that this is concerning; if a parachute fails to deploy, this could indicate a risk of multiple failures during descent.

Separately, Boeing Starliner program engineers detected their own parachute problem, which delayed the capsule’s first crewed flight. A few weeks before takeoff scheduled for July 21, 2023, Starliner teams discovered that the fabric sections of the parachutes had a lower breaking load limit than expected. This meant that if one parachute failed, the other two would not be able to slow the Starliner vehicle enough for a safe landing in New Mexico. In March 2024, Boeing announced that it had resolved the safety issue.

The problem with parachutes comes from the difficulty of accurately simulating the environment in which they deploy. “Even today, with all the technology we have and everything else, to the extent that we have parachutes, we still can’t model the inflation of a parachute,” Stich said, according to SpaceNews. “It seems like it should be easy.” It’s still a little hard.

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