It was supposed to end with a fireball. But instead, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin successfully performed an in-flight escape test, while also improbably landing the first stage of its New Shepard rocket in the West Texas desert Wednesday.
In the weeks leading up to the unmanned test, company officials had said that the booster was not designed to survive the test and that recovering it would be difficult. The test was to show how the capsule could fly away from the booster, ferrying passengers to safety, in the event of a problem with the booster.
About 45 seconds after liftoff, the capsule, which did not have any people on board, fired its engine, pushing down on the booster with 70,000 pounds of force as it scrambled away to safety.
But instead of going haywire under such pressure, the booster kept on trucking, flying straight up to the edge of space, before falling back to Earth and touching down softly. The crew capsule also touched down softly under parachutes in what commentators of the live webcast said would have been an "exhilarating" but "safe ride." It was the fifth time the New Shepard rocket had flown and landed, and a significant step toward perfecting the art of reusable rockets that could help dramatically lower the cost of space travel.
The company plans to begin flying crewed test flights next year, with paying passengers expected to fly in 2018. The company has not yet said how much it would charge for tickets. In the webcast, a company official also said that its New Glenn rocket, which is designed to go to orbit by the end of the decade, would also fly paying customers.
Last month, Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, said that Blue Origin would like to preserve the booster "and put it in a museum," he wrote in a newsletter. "Sadly, that’s not likely. This test will probably destroy the booster. The booster was never designed to survive an in-flight escape. The capsule escape motor will slam the booster with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust."
But if the booster does somehow survive, Bezos wrote that "we will in fact reward it for its service with a retirement party and put it in a museum. In the more likely event that we end up sacrificing the booster in service of this test, it will still have most of its propellant on board at the time escape is triggered, and its impact with the desert floor will be most impressive."
After the capsule and rocket touched down safety, the commentator, Ariane Cornell, confirmed that they would be preserved: "Both of these vehicles are going to be retired after this epic flight."