Jeff Bezos’ space-exploration company Blue Origin sent a rocket into space and then landed it upright back on the launchpad, it announced Tuesday.
Amazon boss and space pioneer Jeff Bezos scored a historic engineering achievement Monday when his secretive Blue Origin space-travel company successfully sent a rocket 62 miles up into space and then, in a carefully controlled descent, landed it upright just four-and-a-half feet from the center of its launchpad.
“Here in mission control in West Texas, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Bezos said in a media conference call Tuesday. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life.”
Blue Origin released the news of its feat, complete with dramatic video of the liftoff and landing at its remote test launch site in Van Horn, Texas, a day after it happened.
The New Shepard rocket — named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space — delivered an empty crew capsule into space. The capsule, using parachutes, also landed safely 11 minutes after liftoff.
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But it was the controlled return of the launch rocket that was a first. Until now, space rockets have been expendable — used once, then allowed to fall into the ocean.
“Not any more,” Bezos wrote in a blog post. “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.”
In the teleconference, Bezos described the ability to land a rocket so it can be used again, thus sharply reducing the enormous cost of putting vehicles into space, as “the Holy Grail of rocketry.”
“To get full reuse, to (be able to) refuel and fly again, to eventually get to something closer to aircraft-type operations, that has to be the vision,” he said.
Blue Origin tried to achieve this on its initial test flight in April but failed when a hydraulic system malfunctioned. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has come close on three occasions but hasn’t succeeded.
In this space race between the billionaires, Bezos now has bragging rights.
Adam Bruckner, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington, said space companies have long sought what has been standard fare in science fiction: a space center that operates like an airport with vehicles that take off, land, then take off again.
“It has to work every time,” he said.
Blue Shepard has typical rocket fins at the bottom, like the feathers on an arrow, to keep it straight and stabilize its ascent.
To control the descent, Blue Origin devised a stabilizing structure at the top of the rocket.
After the capsule detaches, it leaves a crown around the top of the rocket through which air flows, stabilizing the vehicle as it descends.
As the rocket fell Monday, eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 miles per hour.
Then, hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119 mph high-altitude crosswinds to a precise location 5,000 feet above the landing pad. At that point, the rocket’s engine reignited to slow it as the four folding legs of the landing gear deployed.
New Shepard descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 miles per hour to touch down on the launchpad.
“I believe this is a new Golden Age of space exploration. The first Golden Age was the ’60s. We have been treading water for a long time,” said Bezos. “We are on the verge of a new Golden Age in rocketry. I believe one day all rockets will have landing gear.”
Describing the planned trajectory for his New Shepard project in some detail for the first time Tuesday, Bezos said Blue Origin’s schedule will be “step-by-step, very methodical.”
“We’re going to do many, many test flights before we’re ready to put humans on board,” he said. “We’ll do some very stressful, challenging flights.
“Hopefully, a couple of years from now, we’ll be putting humans on New Shepard and taking them into space,” Bezos added.
He described one planned test flight that he said will be “very dramatic” — testing the crew capsule-escape system. In case something goes wrong on the way up, the capsule has a separate rocket motor that can fire to push it away from the main rocket.
Bezos said this will be tested in flight when the launch rocket is at maximum aerodynamic stress.
“That will almost certainly destroy the booster, but we want to test that condition to verify the design of the escape system,” Bezos said.
Bezos said his engineers learn from each test flight and may modify subsystems as they progress. After the hydraulics failed in April, Bezos said, Blue Origin completely redesigned the hydraulic system, and it worked perfectly this time.
Asked how soon the rocket that just landed could go back into space, Bezos said preliminary checks suggested it is essentially ready, though more thorough inspections must be done. “We’ll have to wait some number of weeks before we can fly that hardware again.”
Using the system tested Monday, Blue Origin plans in its initial forays into space to take tourists up for short but spectacular voyages during which they’ll experience weightlessness and get an unbeatable view of the planet.
Bezos also talked about plans to take the next step beyond reaching space and coming back down minutes later: going into orbit around Earth.
Blue Origin is building a bigger, more sophisticated orbital spacecraft that will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Bezos said his engineers have just nailed the most difficult part of the orbital mission plan with the re-entry and landing of New Shepard.
“We’ll take that same exact architecture we just demonstrated and use it on the booster stage of our orbital vehicle,” Bezos said. “The re-entry and final landing will be identical.”
For that orbital vehicle, however, the plan is to land the booster rocket “on an oceangoing platform down range” of Cape Canaveral.
That is exactly what Musk has been trying to achieve with SpaceX. To date, each time he’s tried, his rocket has tipped into the ocean.
The Blue Origin success prompted something of a spat between the two billionaires.
On Twitter, Musk first congratulated Blue Origin, but then pointedly noted that achieving suborbital spaceflight for a few minutes is far short of going into orbit.
SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have boosted spacecraft into orbit to deliver goods to the International Space Station.
And playing down Blue Origin’s achievement, Musk noted that credit for the first reusable suborbital rocket goes to the 1960s-era X-15 Air Force rocket plane.
However, the X-15 was never designed to go into orbit. Bezos’s orbital system will be bigger than New Shepard but will share the same architecture.
On the conference call, Bezos responded to Musk’s tweeted remarks by noting that Blue Origin’s New Shepard had just achieved “the hardest part of vertical landing and reusability … the final landing segment” — the feat SpaceX’s Falcon rockets have not yet achieved.
UW’s Bruckner dismissed this testy exchange as billionaire rivalry.
He said SpaceX concentrated on getting into orbit first so that it could supply the space station, and left achieving reusability until later.
In contrast, with Blue Origin’s initial project to transport tourists to the edge of space, it has focused first on achieving reusability and will go into orbit later.
“They can diss each other as much as they want on Twitter, but they’ve both accomplished very good things, just in a different order,” said Bruckner.
Bezos, who retains the enthusiasm he had as a 5-year-old boy watching the Apollo missions on TV, can certainly match Musk in ambition.
Musk says he wants to go to Mars and make space travel routine. Bezos equally aims to make science fiction a reality.
“The long-term vision is to see an enduring human presence in space. We want to see millions of people living and working in space,” said Bezos. “It’ll be a very fun test program. It’s very fun to fly.”