Blue Origin made history Monday evening when the private aerospace company successfully launched and recovered their New Shepard launch vehicle from their launch site in West Texas. The vehicle reached an altitude of 329,839 ft. (100.5 km) before returning to Earth, making Blue Origin’s New Shepard system the first launch vehicle to successfully reach space and return for a soft landing on terra firma.
“Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket,” Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in a blog post.
Returning a launch vehicle to a soft landing back on Earth has been done, but returning a launch vehicle successfully from space for use again has not. An object is in space when it reaches an altitude roughly 100 km above the Earth, known as the Karman line, and New Shepard successfully soared to that height, deployed its uncrewed capsule, and fell back to Earth. As the free-falling rocket booster entered the atmosphere, airflow through the ring at the top of the booster helped shift the center of pressure for a controlled reentry, and four fins deployed. Traveling at the speed of sound (Mach 1), the vehicle’s eight large drag brakes deployed to reduce the vehicle’s terminal speed nearly in half, to 387 mph. Hydraulically actuated fins navigated New Shepard through 119-mph, high-altitude crosswinds to a location 5,000 feet above the company’s landing pad. The BE-3 liquid rocket engine re-ignited to further slow down the booster and deploy landing gear. The booster descended the last 100 feet at 4.4 mph and softly landed on the pad. The New Shepard capsule came to a perfect parachute landing as well.
New Shepard is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing space vehicle that will one day take humans and payloads to space. The launch system consists of a booster and pressurized capsule with enough room in its interior (530 cubic feet) to spaciously fit six humans. At takeoff, the capsule and booster system will launch vertically and accelerate for about 2.5 minutes before engine cut off. The capsule will then separate from the booster and coast through space. Humans on board the capsule will get a magnificent glimpse of home and experience weightlessness until it is time to return. Booster will free-fall and come to a vertical landing while the capsule lands softly under parachutes.
Blue Origin’s successful landing of their New Shepard system was applauded all over the internet, and especially on social media. On Twitter, CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), Tory Bruno, congratulated Bezos and the team on a job well done. Like Blue Origin, ULA announced plans to launch a reusable launch system called the Vulcan Rocket and incorporate American-made BE-4 engines made by Blue Origin. The ULA/Blue Origin partnership was announced last September and unveiling of the new ULA rocket took place seven months later. Rather than coming to a soft landing, the reusable Vulcan rocket will be captured mid-air by helicopter using Sensible, Modular, Autonomous Return Technology (SMART) that will enable the company to capture the booster’s main engines (the most expensive part of the first stage) for reuse. A mid-air capture enables a controlled environment and provides extra assurance to recover and re-fly the hardware.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also took to Twitter to congratulate Bezos and Blue Origin for their accomplishment. While many were under the impression that Blue Origin was the first reusable rocket, Musk was not. He mentioned that the “SpaceX Grasshopper rocket did 6 suborbital flights 3 years ago [and] is still around” and “Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013. Orbital water landing 2014. Orbital land landing next” with a link to a video of the Grasshopper doing a divert test. He also noted that NASA’s X-15 was the first reusable suborbital rocket and Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne was the first commercial.
SpaceX has tried twice to land their first stage Falcon 9 on an offshore autonomous barge after launching payloads to space, both attempts were close to successful, ending in the rocket hitting the barge and toppling over. Once SpaceX demonstrates a successful landing of their Falcon 9 first stage on a floating barge, the company will then demonstrate flying the rocket back to Landing Complex- 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg AFB in California.
The comparison between SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Blue Origin’s New Shepard is that the latter is only designed to take humans to suborbital space. The rocket doesn’t have the power to reach orbit, or reach much past the 62 mile boundary of space, because it’s not designed to do what Falcon 9 does.
The goal is the same: land the booster vertically for rapid reuse; however, the vehicles have very different capabilities and missions. It’s a much harder feat for SpaceX to accomplish because Falcon 9 first stage is 150 feet tall and falls back to Earth at 2,900 mph at booster separation. Landing the booster has been likened to someone balancing a rubber broomstick on their hand in the middle of a wind storm.
Though Musk claims that Grasshopper completed six suborbital flights three years ago, Blue Origin’s New Shepard system reached over one hundred more kilometers than Grasshoppers record setting height (under 1 km).
In September, Blue Origin announced plans to invest $200 million into Launch Complex-36 (LC-36) at CCAFS in Florida to fly their rockets from, and plans to test and build rocket engines at a nearby production facility. While SpaceX and ULA manufacture and transport their rockets from other states, Blue Origin at Cape Canaveral will be able to produce and transport their rockets without the hassle.
“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 Ken, 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.