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Blue Origin Lands Spent Suborbital Rocket Stage in Texas

Posted by Jason Davis

24-11-2015 10:24 CST

Topics: commercial spaceflight, pretty pictures, human spaceflight, rockets

Secretive spaceflight company Blue Origin flew its New Shepard launch vehicle to the edge of space, deployed a suborbital spacecraft and returned the spent booster rocket to Earth for an upright landing, the company announced today. The flight marks an historic milestone for Blue Origin and the space industry as a whole, with reusability considered by many to be a key requirement for affordable spaceflight.

Blue Origin

New Shepard test flight and booster landing

"Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket," said founder Jeff Bezos in a statement. The flight began yesterday at 12:21 p.m. EST (5:21 UTC) from Blue Origin's West Texas launch site near Van Horn. The New Shepard crew capsule cleared the internationally recognized boundary of space—100 kilometers—by a half-kilometer, returning to Earth via parachutes at 12:32 p.m. 

The booster stage, meanwhile, used a series of hydraulic fins to steer as it plummeted back to Earth, upright. It re-ignited its main engine, the BE-3, at a height of 1.5 kilometers. In a video released by Blue Origin, the booster hovered and wobbled briefly before landing on a set of deployable legs. The company said the touchdown speed was about 7 kilometers per hour. 

Bezos, also the CEO of, tweeted the news:

The effort was congratulated by SpaceX's Elon Musk. Musk and SpaceX have also been working to perfect reusable booster technology: 

At least a couple news outlets declared that Bezos had beaten Musk in the reusable rocket race. Two SpaceX attempts to land the core stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an autonomous drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean have failed. Both SpaceX attempts, however, occurred during orbital flights, in which the rocket was lifting a second stage and heavy payload. 

Nevertheless, returning a spent rocket to Earth is for an upright landing is an impressive—and nearly unprecedented—event. The test bolsters the credibility of Blue Origin, which celebrated in front of its safely returned booster with champagne. The company also recently announced plans to test and launch the orbital version of its rocket system from Cape Canaveral, Florida. 

Blue Origin New Shepard after first landing

Blue Origin

Blue Origin New Shepard after first landing
Blue Origin's New Shepard booster rocket sits on a landing pad after its historic November 23, 2015 mission.
See other posts from November 2015


Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, pretty pictures, human spaceflight, rockets


Robin Hilborn : 11/24/2015 07:26 CST

Spell it "Shepard".

RamblinRon: 11/25/2015 01:22 CST

WOW! Holy Cow! Maybe the USA can get people back in space. Incredible job folks. Thanks to Mr. Bezos and EVERYONE at Blue Origin. Absolutely amazing.

Karen: 11/26/2015 02:33 CST

It's not "nearly unprecedented". SpaceX has been doing it for years with Grasshopper and many entities have done it before them. It's also ridiculous. New Shepard has 1/5th the mass fraction of the Falcon 9 first stage - they have all the mass in the world to dedicate to making things easy. It has zero crossrange. Its lateral velocity is zero rather than moving at mach 10. It has a tiny fraction the max-Q and heating. Its engines are sized for hover rather than lift, because it doesn't have to lift anything (Falcon 9 can't hover - even shutting off 8 of the 9 engines and throttling down the last one they still have to "slam" land it, using a last-second burst of thrust to try to neutralize its velocity right as it touches the ground). And on and on. Tell me, how well do you think this landing would have gone had someone told them "Okay, but before you launch I need you to cut your spacecraft's mass down to 1/5th of what it currently is without changing how much propellant you carry, I want you to install engines too powerful to hover, and I want the craft moving at Mach 10 when you initiate the landing sequence". Think they would have pulled it off? Suborbital spaceflight is the Special Olympics of rocketry.

Joe Brooks: 11/27/2015 11:25 CST

Sorry, Karen, but I have to disagree. No one has delivered a payload to space, orbital or suborbital, and brought the first stage back for a soft-landing at the launch site for reuse. Regardless of whether retrieving an orbital first stage is more difficult or not, that does not in any way diminish the accomplishment - it is still an advance in rocketry, and that's a good thing for all. When SpaceX does it on an orbital launch, that too will be an advance in rocketry and will be celebrated. I don't understand the sour attitude towards someone trying to move things forward. A rising tide lifts all boats.

Bob Ware: 11/29/2015 12:15 CST

Congratulations Blue Origins!!! That was very impressive! Progress is being made by a few great companies such as yours! How many other countries private citizens are doing this also? Hmm? Zero ... What's next Blue Origin? @Karen ... I am guessing that you missed the part about the Shepard spacecraft making the flight into space (by a half kilometer) and returning to a successful landing. That is also another major accomplishment. From here they'll move onto bigger and better vehicles. You climb the ladder by starting with stepping onto the first wrung. Just because you are not first doesn't mean you can get involved. If you do this at all, it is just as impressive as it was when done for the very first time. Also, it is better to have a surplus of power & consumables than come up disastrously short.

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