Jeff Bezos’s space company pulled off a complex landing maneuver with its New Shepard space vehicle Monday in what he touted as a breakthrough that could help dramatically lower the cost of spaceflight.
During a test flight in West Texas, Blue Origin successfully launched its unmanned New Shepard vehicle to 329,839 feet, or just over 62 miles, the threshold for space in what the founder of Amazon.com called a “flawless” mission. The capsule separated and returned to Earth, landing with parachutes.
But more significant was the landing of the rocket booster, which descended, flew through 119 mph high-altitude crosswinds and touched down on the landing pad by firing its engine again. The company based in Kent, Wash., said it landed just four-and-a-half feet from the center.
The landing was cheered as a momentous milestone in the history of space flight that could one day make human travel far more accessible and affordable.
Typically, rocket boosters are used once, burning up or crashing into the ocean after liftoff. But Bezos, the billionaire entrepreneur and owner of The Washington Post, has been working on creating reusable rockets that act like airplanes — fly, land, then fly again.
“Rockets have always been expendable,” Bezos said in a statement. “Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket. … Full reuse is a game-changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”
Like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin wants to take tourists to suborbital space and allow paying customers the sensation of feeling weightlessness and give them a view of Earth from a distance through windows nearly three times the size of those on a 747.
In an interview, Bezos said the landing “was one of the greatest moments of my life. I was misty-eyed.”
He said the company, which has for years been famously secretive, would move rigorously and meticulously to continue to test the vehicle to make sure it is safe for tourists to fly.
“We will fly the vehicle autonomously many, many times through a very methodical test program and that’ll take probably a couple of years,” he said. But he stressed that the company, whose motto is "step by step, ferociously," wouldn’t rush: “We’ll do it when we’re ready.”
Eventually, Bezos would like to open up the cosmos to the masses, and help develop the technology that will eventually have “millions of people living and working in space.”
Part of the motivation is the human instinct to explore, he said, to wonder, “what’s across that mountain range.” But he said that commercial space exploration needs to move beyond suborbital and low Earth orbit travel, and help change the way we think about Earth.
“It’s becoming very clear that Earth is a finite planet with finite resources,” he said. “And we need to be able to get resources, energy and important minerals from what is for all practical purposes a limitless supply of such things in the solar system.”
He said he envisioned the day when “all heavy industry will move off of Earth into space.” And Earth would be “preserved as this gem.”
In addition to developing the New Shepard launch vehicle, Blue Origin is also working on what Bezos called its “very big brother,” an orbital rocket that would be powered by a next-generation engine called the BE-4.
The company has taken over a historic launch pad at Cape Canaveral, and plans to fly that rocket, which could launch satellites as well as astronauts, sometime by the end of the decade. The architecture of the new orbital rocket is going to be very similar to the New Shepard, so that “we can take all of our learning and apply it to the big brother.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has also tried to land and reuse its Falcon 9 rocket, but from greater distances. Twice it has come close to landing the first stage on a floating barge at sea and is expected to try again next month.
It also launched and landed its Grasshopper, as Musk pointed out on Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
Musk also noted that it is far more difficult to launch into orbit, as his rockets have done, than just hitting the threshold of space.
Still, Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, called Blue Origin's landing "a revolutionary step forward. It really showcases the power of what commercial innovation and ingenuity can do."
The United Launch Alliance says the engines of its new rocket, the Vulcan, could be reused as well. But instead of flying them back to Earth, the engines would float back on parachutes and then be snagged in mid-air by a helicopter with a grappling hook.
On Monday, Blue Origin’s New Shepard, named for astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, landed under the power of its BE-3 engine. The rocket navigated its way to 5,000 feet above the landing pad, then the engine reignited, the landing gear deployed and slowed down to 4.4 mph before touching down.
"The holy grail of rockets is full reuse," Bezos said. "And that’s what we have demonstrated--so now there is an existence of proof that it can be done."