Blue Origin just launched and landed its suborbital rocket New Shepard — the same vehicle the company flew and then landed in November. The booster reached a maximum altitude of 333,582 feet, or 63 miles, above the Earth's surface, before landing gently back at Blue Origin's test facility in Texas. That makes it the first commercial vertical rocket to launch into space a second time.
The first commercial vertical rocket to launch into space a second time
It also means Blue Origin has seemingly beaten rival SpaceX yet again in the race to reuse rockets. SpaceX successfully landed one of its Falcon 9 rockets post-launch back in December for the first time, just a month after Blue Origin did. However, CEO Elon Musk said that particular rocket will never be launched again, as the company considers it too special to reuse. SpaceX tried to land another rocket last week, but the vehicle ultimately fell over and exploded, making it impossible to fly again.
SpaceX and Blue Origin may be working toward the same goal, but the companies do have two very different vehicles. Blue Origin's New Shepard is designed to take future passengers into suborbital space, where they will experience four minutes of weightlessness before falling back to Earth. SpaceX's Falcon 9 is made to launch payloads and cargo into orbit and beyond; the rocket goes much faster and to a much higher altitude before returning to the ground.
Why Blue Origin’s rocket landing shouldn’t be compared to SpaceX
Still, the fact that Blue Origin re-launched — and also landed — the New Shepard again after such a short turnaround time is pretty impressive. A few modifications had to be made to the vehicle before that could happen. The company replaced the parachutes in the crew capsule (the passenger vehicle that sits on top of the rocket). The crew capsule detaches from the rest of the rocket body in space, and the parachutes help it to land safely back on ground again. Blue Origin said that it also replaced New Shepard's pyro igniters and updated its software. A lot of inspections were needed to make sure the rocket was ready.
Normally, Blue Origin's launches are kept very secret, but this time, the test flight wasn't as much of a surprise. SpaceNews learned yesterday that the FAA granted a temporary airspace restriction for an area that included Blue Origin's facility near Van Horn, Texas. And earlier today, a Twitter user posted photos of the launch.
Blue Origin, which was founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has been testing its New Shepard rocket outside of the public eye for more than a year now. In November of last year, Blue Origin became the first company ever to land the first stage of a rocket that had been launched into space — but Bezos waited until the company had time to cut together a slick video of the feat before he told the world. The same thing happened with today's launch. It's a totally different approach from SpaceX, which years ago shared the same hesitance but has now gotten in the habit of live streaming nearly every test, launch, or rocket landing attempt.
Bigger Blue Origin rockets are coming, Bezos says
Reusable rockets have long been touted as a way to lower the cost of rocket launches; instead of building an entirely new rocket for each mission, previously used rockets can just be launched again. In a blog post announcing this launch, Bezos said he is particularly fond of powered vertical landings — like the ones New Shepard and the Falcon 9 are designed to do — because the technique works better for bigger rockets. And he made it clear that Blue Origin plans to scale up. "We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle," he wrote. "Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it’s still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year."
Bezos also said the ultimate goal of Blue Origin is to make it possible for "millions of people" to live and work in space some day.