While we’ve been watching Elon Musk’s SpaceX accomplish wonders in private sector space flight, we’ve also been watching his reusable self-landing launch vehicles fail at being reusable. And by fail, we mean explode. SpaceX’s rockets are bigger and more powerful, and can push objects into orbit, but they are trying to land on floating platforms at sea. So far, they just can’t seem to get that critical angle right. They touch down too fast, or at a bad angle, and the rest is red hot bits of metal and rapidly expanding fireballs.
While all this has been going on, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos founded a commercial space flight company called Blue Origin, and began quietly working on the same problem. They’ve just succeeded. Yesterday, November 23, 2015, they executed the world’s first reusable rocket landing. The New Shepard launch vehicle flew an unmanned capsule with a four passenger capacity to an altitude of 100.5 kilometers (about 63 miles, or about 10 times the altitude of a commercial jet flight). Then it returned to a designated landing site
Why are reusable rockets so important, you ask? Well, a big problem with space travel right now is that it’s very wasteful — the rockets that help propel space shuttles into the atmosphere fall off once they reach a certain altitude and are often completely unsalvageable after they crash back down to Earth. Blue Origin’s rocket reached an altitude of 100.5 kilometers in the air before beginning its descent back to Earth and successfully landing on the ground. And not just anywhere – dead center on its designated landing pad.
“This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design,” Bezos writes on Blue Origin’s website. “Our unique ring fin shifted the center of pressure aft to help control reentry and descent; eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle’s terminal speed to 387 mph; hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet above the landing pad; then the highly-throttleable BE-3 engine re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph to touchdown on the pad.”
Elon Musk is no sore loser, though. He issued the following congratulatory tweet:
Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving VTOL on their booster
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
The whole Blue Horizon effort seems to be aimed at space tourists, and the video is aimed at people who want the experience of going to near space. There’s no word yet on how much these flights might cost.
“We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know. We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step. Our fantastic team in Kent, Van Horn and Cape Canaveral is working hard not just to build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space,” said Bezos on the Blue Origin web site.
If you want to receive updates updates on their progress and get early access to ticketing information, sign up at www.blueorigin.com/interested.