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.
New Shepard test flight and booster landing Video: Blue Origin
"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 Amazon.com, tweeted the news:
The effort was congratulated by SpaceX's Elon Musk. Musk and SpaceX have also been working to perfect reusable booster technology:
Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving VTOL on their booster— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
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.