Blue Origin, a space tourism company founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has performed a surprising and “historic” rocket launch and landing from their facility in Van Horn, Texas. A video reveals how the New Shepard space vehicle reached the edge of space, before returning to Earth in a controlled landing.
Crucially, the rocket traveled to a height of 100.5 kilometers (62.4 miles) – officially beyond the boundary of space 100 kilometers (62 miles) high, known as the Karman line – making it the first rocket to land intact after journeying to space. This will be somewhat of a blow to their rival SpaceX, who have been endeavoring to do something similar with their Falcon 9 rocket, but to no avail so far.
“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts – a used rocket,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, in a statement. “Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard space vehicle flew a flawless mission – soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just four and a half feet from the center of the pad. Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”
Although Blue Origin have shown off their rocket before, this latest feat comes somewhat out of the blue (sorry), with the secretive company not publishing any announcements in the run-up to the launch, which took place yesterday. At the maximum altitude, the unmanned capsule separated from the rocket for a landing via parachute, while the booster itself re-ignited for a controlled landing.
Check out the video of the launch and landing above. Blue Origin/YouTube
Reusable rockets are seen as a vital development for space travel. At the moment, all rockets are expendable, meaning a new one must be built for each launch. But both Blue Origin and SpaceX are trying to develop reusable rockets so that the same equipment can be used over and over again, drastically reducing the cost of going to space. For Blue Origin, this opens up important space tourism avenues. For SpaceX, they are more focused on getting humans and equipment into orbit.
It should be noted that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is much larger and is capable of reaching orbit, whereas New Shepard is not. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive feat, with Elon Musk even taking the time to tweet: “Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO [Blue Origin] team for achieving VTOL [Vertical Take-Off and Landing] on their booster.”
The ultimate goal of New Shepard – named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard – is to take up to six space tourists at a time on short trips beyond the Karman line to “experience the thrill of launch atop a rocket, the freedom of weightlessness, and views through the largest windows to ever fly in space,” the company states.
When these will begin is anyone’s guess at the moment, with the company only stating they will occur “following completion of a methodical flight test program.” This latest test, though, shows the company is very serious about its goals. And with other players like Virgin Galactic, XCOR, and Sierra Nevada all planning space tourism ventures of their own, the competition is heating up.
This space race is well and truly on.