The first truly reusable rocket has landed.
Today Jeff Bezos’ space travel company Blue Origin launched and safely landed New Shepard, a reusable space vehicle. Not only did the unmanned crew capsule land safely, but the rocket engine made an astoundingly gentle descent back to Earth where it landed upright.
The feat by New Shepard is showcased in the video above provided by Blue Origin.
New Shepard reached a suborbital altitude of 329,839 feet before returning to Earth. After launch, the capsule separated from the engine. The capsule then landed with the help of parachutes. The rocket landed at a gentle 4.4 mph, using boosters to control its descent. The test flight occurred at a launch site in Texas. Blue Origin is based out of Kent, Washington.
The vertical landing of New Shepard’s rocket engine is what makes this a particularly important feat. Typically, these engines burn up or crash down, whereas New Shepard can be sent back into space for additional flights.
This is a game-changer in the commercial space race because a reusable rocket lowers cost. As The Wall Street Journal points out: “The ability to inspect, refurbish and then launch the same booster — instead of allowing it to plummet back to earth in an uncontrolled fashion — also offers huge potential advantages for satellite operators and launch providers alike.” Blue Origin could become a major player in the space economy.
New Shepard, which is a vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) vehicle, is made up of a crew capsule and a BE-3 rocket. The BE-3 rocket is “the first new liquid hydrogen-fueled rocket engine to be developed for production in America in over a decade,” according the Blue Origin. Blue Origin is already working on the next generation engine, BE-4, with eyes on orbital travel. Blue Origin has invested $200 million to conduct launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Not only does the video show an impressively controlled landing of New Shepard’s rocket engine, but it also includes a simulation of what the space tourism experience might look like for the lucky six passengers in New Shepard’s capsule. There's also a group of excited Blue Origin employees popping bottles of champagne shortly after the successful landing.
On Twitter, Bezos offered his thoughts on the accomplishment and the importance of the spent BE-3 rocket:
The rarest of beasts - a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy. Check out video: https://t.co/9OypFoxZk3— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) November 24, 2015
Comparisons (and contrasts) have been drawn between Blue Origin and Elon Musk's SpaceX. Musk pointed out that while New Shepard’s safe landing is noteworthy, it’s not quite up to SpaceX’s caliber. (For those keeping track, New Shepard reached a suborbital height, whereas SpaceX vehicles reach orbital heights. In June, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the company's robotic Dragon cargo capsule exploded about two minutes after launching.)
In addition to its use for space tourism, the Blue Origin technology will make delivery of suborbital payloads for a number of other uses. Blue Origin notes that “our New Shepard system is ideal for microgravity physics, gravitational biology, technology demonstrations, and educational programs.”
The commercial space race is picking up as feats like this push the limits of space exploration. If Blue Origin’s test flights continue to be as successful as New Shepard’s launch and landing, space tourism could be just around the corner — and 329,839 feet up.