Jeff Bezos's space company becomes the first to launch a rocket to space and then land it back on Earth.
In a development that has come more or less out of nowhere, Jeff Bezos's rocket company, called Blue Origin, secretly launched a rocket to space and then landed it just "four and a half feet from the center of the pad," taking the lead over SpaceX in the race to make potentially reusable rockets.
It is the first time in history a vertically launched rocket has been sent to space and has landed back on Earth without being damaged or destroyed.
"Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket," Bezos said in a statement. "Blue Origin's reusable New Shepard space vehicle flew a flawless mission—soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just four and a half feet from the center of the pad. Full reuse is a game changer, and we can't wait to fuel up and fly again."
Because Blue Origin is doing its own tests rather than launching commercially for NASA or satellite companies, it has been able to work clandestinely. It secretly launched its first rocket earlier this year and only told media and the general public after the fact. Monday's launch also happened in secret, though the company is obviously doing a big media push right now.
The company says the rocket flew to 329,839 feet, which is high enough to be considered "space." A capsule that is designed to hold human tourists separated from it and safely touched down on Earth using a parachute. The rocket itself then fell back toward Earth, relit its boosters, and landed just next to the launch pad. This is, more or less, how SpaceX's Falcon 9 is supposed to work. (In fact, until recently, the two companies had been involved in a patent dispute over the technology. It was dismissed).
Reusability has been SpaceX's goal from the get-go, and while it's come close to succeeding several times, its strategy of attempting to land on a floating barge in the middle of the ocean has made the task difficult. SpaceX has said it's going to make an overland reusability attempt, but the company still doesn't have a return-to-flight date after its June mission failure on an International Space Station resupply mission.
A quick but necessary caveat (which shouldn't take anything away from Blue Origin's achievement): The reusability SpaceX is going for is more technically difficult because the Falcon 9 has enough thrust to actually get into orbit. The rocket is heavier and taller, so the physics behind a successful landing are tougher. Blue Origin appears to want to do suborbital tourist flights at first, which requires a smaller rocket.
Blue Origin will now have to prove that the same rocket it launched Monday can be actually reused on a proper flight. Only then can we officially say we're living in the age of the reusable rocket.