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Blue Origin New Shepard launch
Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket ship rises from its West Texas launch pad on Monday. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, successfully sent its New Shepard rocket ship to outer space for the first time on Monday – and even more amazingly, brought every piece back down to Earth for a soft landing.

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“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket,” Bezos wrote in a blog posting that spread the news and shared a video.

Bezos makes a couple of cameo appearances in the video – including a shot showing him taking a seat in the control room before launch, and a post-landing scene in which he pops open a champagne bottle. (He’s the guy wearing the hat and sunglasses.)

The achievement arguably qualifies New Shepard as the “first fully reusable rocket” to go into space, said Jessica Pieczonka, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin. The flight comes after more than a decade of effort and several test flights at Blue Origin’s launch facility near Van Horn, Texas. The company is headquartered in Kent, Wash., and recently struck a deal for a $200 million launch and manufacturing complex in Florida.

Blue Origin’s aim is to reduce the cost of sending people and payloads to the final frontier – first, on suborbital up-and-down trajectories, and eventually into orbit and back. The venture follows through on Bezos’ childhood dream of spaceflight.

A test flight in April saw the recovery of the craft’s crew capsule, but not its rocket booster. This time, both halves of the spaceship came back intact. Blue Origin said the uncrewed New Shepard blasted off at 11:21 a.m. CT Monday and reached a maximum altitude of 100.5 kilometers (329,839 feet). That’s just above the internationally accepted 100-kilometer boundary of outer space.

The suborbital flight profile is similar to that of America’s first crewed spaceflight, which sent astronaut Alan Shepard to a height of 116 miles (187 kilometers) in 1961. Blue Origin’s New Shepard was named in his honor.

After its ascent, the empty crew capsule floated back down to the ground on the end of a parachute. Touchdown came 11 minutes after launch. Meanwhile, the rocket booster re-ignited its hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine during descent, at a reported height of 1.5 kilometers (4,896 feet), and made a successful vertical landing.

Until now, no one has been able to reuse every piece of a rocket that’s blasted off from a launch pad to reach outer space: Even the space shuttle had to jettison its external fuel tank and let it burn up during atmospheric re-entry. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is not yet reusable, although the company intends to make it so someday. (Also, the Falcon 9 is much more powerful than New Shepard – powerful enough to put payloads in orbit.)

Over the past year, SpaceX has made multiple attempts to land the Falcon’s first stage on a seagoing platform – a concept that involved a legal wrestling match over a Blue Origin patent.

The closest precedent is the X-15 rocket plane, which was launched from a B-52 mothership, made it past the 100-kilometer mark and came back for a runway landing twice in 1963. SpaceShipOne, which became the only privately developed craft to send humans to space in 2004, relied on an air-launched, hybrid rocket system with a solid-fuel component that could not be reused.

In contrast, Blue Origin could refill New Shepard’s tanks and send it on another suborbital spaceflight right from the pad. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again,” Bezos said in a news release.

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The company has said it plans to start sending research payloads on suborbital spaceflights next year. Eventually, Blue Origin intends to send up to six passengers on quick rides to space that will involve several minutes of zero gravity and a maximum 5-G jolt of acceleration on the way down. The company hasn’t said when it will start flying people, or how much it will cost, but it’s already letting would-be customers sign up.

“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,” Bezos said. “We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step.”

Blue Origin’s competitors in the suborbital space race include Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, which are currently assembling their rocket ships.

This report was revised to add qualifications to the “first fully reusable space rocket” claim. Thanks to Geoffrey Landis for pointing out the X-15 precedent. And to satisfy the rocket geeks out there, we’ll add a shout-out to the DC-X team, Rotary Rocket, Armadillo Aerospace, Masten Space Systems and other pioneers of rocket reusability. Here are the basic statistics for Monday’s flight, as reported by Blue Origin:

  • Launched at 11:21 a.m. CT Monday.
  • Apogee of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) for the crew capsule.
  • Maximum velocity of Mach 3.72.
  • Re-ignition of rocket booster at 4,896 feet above ground level.
  • Controlled vertical landing of the booster at 4.4 mph.
  • Deployment of crew capsule drogue parachutes at 20,045 feet above ground.
  • Landing of the crew capsule under parachutes at 11:32 a.m. CT.
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