The private spaceflight company Blue Origin just launched itself into the history books by successfully flying and landing a reusable rocket.
Powered by the company's own BE-3 engine, the rocket kicked off the launchpad yesterday (Nov. 23) at 11:21 a.m. Central Time, carrying the New Shepard space vehicle. The stunning feat was captured in an amazing test flight video released by the company.
Shortly after liftoff, the rocket separated from the vehicle. In the past, a spent rocket would fall back to Earth like a stone, having completed its one and only flight.
But Blue Origin's rocket didn't fall aimlessly back to Earth; instead, it was guided toward a landing pad, where it re-ignited its engines, hovered briefly above the ground and finally touched down softly on the pad, remaining upright and intact. This soft landing means the rocket can be used for more flights, which Blue Origin and other companies have said will significantly drive down the cost of spaceflight. [See more photos of Blue Origin's epic test flight]
No other agency or company has successfully landed a reusable rocket on the ground after flying the vehicle to space.
"Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore," stated a blog post on the company's website, written by founder Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who also founded Amazon.com. "Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket. This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design."
Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule reached a maximum altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) and a speed of Mach 3.72, meaning 3.72 times the speed of sound, or about 2,854 mph (4,593 km/h), according a press release.
"As far as we can tell from our quick-look inspections, and our quick look at the data, this mission was completely nominal, and this vehicle is ready to fly again," Bezos told reporters today (Nov. 24) in a press briefing. He added that the rocket's hydraulic system, which suffered an anomaly on the last New Shepard test flight, "performed perfectly," during Monday's test.
The company's press release also laid out the details of the rocket booster landing. The rocket's physical design first helped it to glide back toward the launch pad. Closer to the ground, the vehicle's eight "drag brakes" reduced its terminal speed to 387 mph (622 km/h). Additional fins on the outside of the vehicle "steered it through 119-mph [192 km/h] high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet [1,500 meters] above the landing pad," the release stated.
Finally, the BE-3 engine re-ignited "to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet [30 m] at 4.4 mph [7.1 km/h] to touch down on the pad."
The New Shepard crew vehicle also landed safely, guided down to Earth by parachutes.
Blue Origin has been somewhat secretive about the progress of its spaceflight vehicles and rockets; the company typically doesn't announce test flights until they are already completed. Blue Origin intends to use the New Shepard vehicle for suborbital space tourism and as a microgravity science laboratory. (Suborbital means the vehicle can fly only to a lower altitude than is necessary to start orbiting the Earth — it would have to travel higher, and faster, to reach altitudes achieved by orbiting satellites or the International Space Station, for example.)
The company is also working on an orbital vehicle, which has been nicknamed "Very Big Brother."
"We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know," Bezos wrote in the blog post. "We are pursuing this vision patiently, step by step. Our fantastic team in Kent [Washington], Van Horn [Texas] and Cape Canaveral [Florida] is working hard not just to build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space."
Blue Origin is not the only company pursuing a reusable rocket design. The private spaceflight company SpaceX, founded by another Internet billionaire, Elon Musk, soft-landed its Grasshopper resuable-rocket prototype multiple times after brief flights that did not reach space. SpaceX has soft-landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 Resuable rocket on the ground, but not in operational mode: The booster was flown to only an altitude of 820 feet (250 meters), the booster's landing legs already deployed at launch, and there was no payload sitting atop it.
SpaceX has succeeded in bringing Falcon 9 first stages down in soft ocean landings during orbital launches, but two other attempts to land the booster on a floating ocean platform were near misses — both times, the rocket came in too hard and crashed on the landing pad.
Today (Nov. 24), Musk tweeted, "Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving VTOL [vertical takeoff and landing] on their booster." But, in a second tweet, he said, "It is, however, important to clear up the difference between 'space' and 'orbit,' as described well by https://what-if.xkcd.com/58/."
SpaceX is not building a suborbital vehicle like New Shepard. Musk's company's robotic Dragon cargo capsule has already flown supplies to the International Space Station, and SpaceX has been selected by NASA to build a crew vehicle that will take people to the orbiting laboratory.
In the press briefing today, Bezos said it could be "some number of weeks" before Blue Origin attempts to fly the New Shepard rocket again. He said the company may find some elements of the vehicle system that it wants to improve before the next flight. Looking further ahead, he added, "Hopefully, a couple of years from now, we'll be putting humans on New Shepard and taking them into space."
[Editor's Note: This article was updated at 1 p.m. ET on Nov. 24 to include comments given by Jeff Bezos during a press briefing that took place after this article was initially published. Additional information was also added regarding SpaceX's attempts to soft land its reusable rocket boosters. A correction was made to clarify that Blue Origin is the first company to soft land a rocket on the ground after the vehicle had flown to space.]