Landing rockets is suddenly all the rage in the space industry. For decades, rocket boosters, the most powerful — and expensive — part of the rocket were discarded into the sea after launch. But Bezos and others, such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk, have been developing boosters that launch vertically, then fly autonomously back to Earth and land like gymnasts sticking a dismount, so that they can be reused.
If these so-called “New Space” entrepreneurs are able to reliably recover and reuse rockets, the cost of space flight could dramatically decrease — a key step toward realizing their dreams of democratizing space and one day flying tourists to the cosmos.
Recovering and reusing rockets reliably would be a huge breakthrough, analysts say. And the quest to pull off what was once thought as impossible has fueled a post-Cold War space race between Bezos and Musk, his fellow tech billionaire turned space rival.
In November, Bezos, who has repeatedly said his goal is to have “millions of people living and working in space,” launched the New Shepard vehicle from its test site in west Texas. The spacecraft crested past the boundary line of space and then landed gently, becoming the first rocket to go to space and land vertically.
Data from that flight "made preparations for [Friday's] re-flight relatively straightforward," Bezos wrote in a blog post. Friday's landing had a significant software update that would further improve the autonomous landings, he wrote. The vehicle will still aim for the center of the landing site, but if it gets pushed slightly off course, the software would allow it to land "at a position of convenience" instead of forcing a correction that could ultimately doom the landing.
"It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway," Bezos wrote. "If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline."
To achieve his vision of opening up space to the masses, he wrote that Blue Origin plans building much larger rockets, including an orbital vehicle that is already three years in development. He wrote that landing bigger rockets would ultimately be easier because their size increases stability.
"Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger," he wrote. "Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. ... And since New Shepard is the smallest booster we will ever build, this carefully choreographed dance atop our plume will just get easier from here."
In December, Musk’s SpaceX topped Bezos by launching its Falcon 9 rocket on an orbital mission, and then landing the first stage of the larger, more powerful rocket at a landing site at Cape Canaveral.
Earlier this month, Musk said the company refired the engines of that rocket, showing that it could be reused. But SpaceX decided not to fly it again, saying it should be preserved for history. Then, earlier this month, it attempted to land another Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform off the California coast. The rocket landed, but one of the rocket’s legs didn’t properly lock into place and the stage tipped over and blew up.
But in a tweet, Musk said it would continue to try.
My best guess for 2016: ~70% landing success rate (so still a few more RUDs to go), then hopefully improving to ~90% in 2017— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 19, 2016
While their companies launched and tried to land rockets, Musk and Bezos squared off in a Twitter skirmish, trading one-upmanship barbs in a new kind of space race. While perhaps petty, the competition between the two billionaires has illustrated how far the industry has come in just a few years.
Fueled by NASA’s decision to invest in commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, as well as others, commercial space has begun to take off, with breakthroughs coming almost monthly. In his blog, Bezos wrote that the company would launch and land New Shepard "again and again" this year. It also plans to start full engine testing of the BE-4 engine that would power its orbital vehicle and a new rocket being developed by the United Launch Alliance, the joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
On Thursday, SpaceX released a video of its Dragon capsule test firing its thrusters, which would be used to land the capsule on land — instead of under parachutes.
The race to land rockets is reminiscent of the Ansari X Prize, more than a decade ago, when commercial space companies competed to become the first to send a piloted rocket past the edge of space twice within two weeks. A venture backed by Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, and Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites won the $10 million competition. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic then licensed the technology to build its own space craft, SpaceShipTwo, the latest version of which is expected to be unveiled next month in the Mojave Desert.
In a recent interview, Branson inserted himself, albeit gently, into the space race being waged between Musk and Bezos, saying that the ride Virgin could offer to tourists aboard a space plane — as opposed to the capusles Musk and Bezos offer — would be preferable.
“Obviously we believe going to space in a space ship and coming back in that space ship, on wheels, will be a customer experience that people would prefer than perhaps one or two other options that are being considered," he said. "And we’d love to see whether we’re correct about that."