- New Shepard rocket flies to space before landing back on Earth
- Reusable rockets are key to cutting the cost of space travel
Jeff Bezos’s space-exploration company Blue Origin LLC achieved a key milestone: sending a rocket into space and then landing it safely back on Earth.
The flight and recovery of the New Shepard vehicle beat Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the quest to build a reusable rocket, a central goal for companies trying to cut the cost of lofting freight and astronauts into Earth’s orbit. SpaceX is working to recover boosters on an oceangoing barge so they can fly again, but hasn’t yet succeeded.
Blue Origin’s craft took off Monday from the company’s Texas launch site, reached an altitude of 329,839 feet (100 kilometers) and then landed vertically atop a pillar of flame from its motor. A Blue Origin video showed the rocket swaying gently from side to side as its four legs flexed in preparation for touchdown amid a swirl of billowing dust.
“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts -- a used rocket,” Bezos, who is also chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., said in a statement. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”
Musk offered kudos to Bezos and Blue Origin in a tweet, writing “Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving” vertical takeoff and landing.
SpaceX remains ahead of Blue Origin in winning commercial business. The company, formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., is vying for its second award from NASA to ferry cargo to the International Space Station. In 2014, SpaceX and Boeing Co. shared the first contract to operate manned flights to the orbiting lab.
Recycling rockets will be a crucial step for the viability of for-profit space companies. For decades, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recovered capsules by parachute, as Blue Origin did with the one atop New Shepard, but typically treated the boosters as expendable.
The technical challenges remain daunting: A vertical touchdown means ensuring that a rocket can survive the heat of re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, navigate toward the landing zone and then decelerate from traveling thousands of miles per hour so it settles in softly -- and undamaged.