Monday morning, in Van Horn, Texas, a rocket blasted off its launch pad, reached the very edge of space and then came back down to make a landing just four and a half feet from where it started. With that smooth maneuver, the space-exploration company Blue Origin made history as the first to safely land a vertical rocket, reports Jason Koebler for Motherboard. The next step is to prove the New Shepard rocket can take off again, ensuring it is indeed reusable.
The whole operation was carried out in secret, as Blue Origin didn’t announce their reusable rocket’s test until after it successfully concluded. "Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again," says Blue Origin’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who previously founded Amazon.com, in a statement from the rocket company.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle, named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space, is designed to carry passengers to space for a short, suborbital flight. For this test, the rocket blasted up to 329,839 feet, putting it 62.4 miles (100.5 km) above the Earth’s surface, just over the 100 kilometer mark that many call the edge of space. When the rocket came back to Earth, it’s booster reignited to slow the craft down to only 4.4 miles per hour at the landing.
The crew capsule touched down separately, with parachutes, about 11 minutes after the launch.
Bezos writes in a Tweet: "Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy."
Other than Blue Origin, the companies in this field include SpaceX, the company founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk. SpaceX has been trying, and failing, to land a reusable rocket for the past year. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is also angling for private spaceflight, but his company’s reusable vehicles don’t take off from the ground—they are carried piggyback into the upper atmosphere.
It’s tempting to draw a comparison between the Blue Origin and SpaceX and their wealthy entrepreneur founders. After all, they are developing their technologies in the same arena—even getting into a row over a patent for reusable rockets. But the spaceflight companies are actually aiming at different targets.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket’s goal is to take seven astronauts at a time back and forth between the International Space Station and Earth, reports Jessica Orwig for Business Insider. Achieving orbit, and docking with a space station orbiting between 205 and 270 miles above the planet is a much harder task than cruising for ten minutes at the edge of space. SpaceX also works under contract for NASA and other companies to make money, whereas Blue Origin will sell tickets for its rides.
On Twitter, Musk congratulated Bezos and the team for their achievement but also made sure to point out the differences between the two companies’ goals, a successful re-landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (albeit only after reaching 820 feet), as well as a rocket-powered aircraft from the U.S. Air Force that reached space in the 1960s.
The pursuit of a completely reusable system—rather than just retrieving a passenger component—is the pursuit of more sustainable space flight. Musk has called the idea "the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space." The system that came closest to the reusable idea was the space shuttle, but it was only partially reusable.
Still, the steps taken by Blue Origin toward a fully reusable rocket launch system are impressive. The successful test more than hints that U.S. spaceflight is entering a new era of reusable rockets that can take humans into space.