If these “New Space” entrepreneurs are able to reliably recover and reuse rockets, the cost of spaceflight could dramatically decrease, a key step toward realizing their dreams of democratizing space.
Two months after Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin launched a rocket just past the boundary of space and then recovered it in a soft landing, the space company repeated the feat Friday in another breakthrough for the booming commercial space industry.
In a video posted on its website, the company said its New Shepard vehicle made history when it became the first rocket to pass the boundary of space, what’s known as the Karman line, 62 miles high, “and then land vertically upon the Earth” for the second time in a row. Bezos, CEO of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.
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 “New Space” entrepreneurs are able to reliably recover and reuse rockets, the cost of spaceflight could dramatically decrease, a key step toward realizing their dreams of democratizing space and one day flying tourists to the cosmos. Typically, the first stages of rockets are tossed into the sea, after they propel their payloads into space.
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Recovering and reusing them 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.
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, Fla.
This month, Musk said the company refired the engines of that rocket, showing it could be reused. But SpaceX decided not to fly it again, saying it should be preserved for history. Also this month, SpaceX attempted to land its 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.
In a tweet, Musk said it would continue to try.
Fueled by NASA’s decision to invest in commercial space companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, as well as others, commercial space has begun to take off, with breakthroughs coming almost monthly.
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 spacecraft, 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 war being waged between Musk and Bezos, saying the ride Virgin could offer to tourists aboard a space plane — as opposed to the capsule Musk and Bezos would offer — would be preferable.
“Obviously, we believe going to space in a spaceship and coming back in that spaceship, 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.”