Blue Origin’s spacecraft New Shepard barrels back towards Earth, a faint white cylinder against a sky background.
A voice tinged with static chronicles its descent. “12,000 ft…5,000 ft…engines starting.”
A fiery stream shoots out the bottom of the craft.
“We have thrust,” the voice says. “1,000 ft.”
Suddenly, the barren west Texas landscape comes into the view. The rocket slows over the ground, sending up brown plumes, before kissing the Earth. For the last 100 ft, the space vehicle traveled at 4.4 mph, allowing its successful touchdown.
“Rockets have always been expendable,” wrote Jeff Bezos, the founder of the private space firm and CEO of Amazon. “Not anymore.”
“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in west Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket,” Bezos said. New Shepard “flew a flawless mission—soaring to 329,839 (ft) and then returning through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just (4.5 ft) from the center of the pad. Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”
The flight and reentry descent took place the morning of Nov. 23, and signals a new advance in the race to develop reusable rockets.
New Shepard is comprised of two parts: a crew capsule big enough to fit six astronauts and a rocket booster powered an American-made BE-3 liquid hydrogen, liquid oxygen engine. The spacecraft reached Mach 3.72 speeds during its test flight. “At liftoff, the BE-3 delivers 110,000 (lbs) of thrust. During ascent, astronauts experience 3x the force of gravity as the spacecraft accelerates through the atmosphere,” according to Blue Origins.
According to Bezos, eight drag brakes deployed during the descent to help reduce the vehicle’s speed to 387 mph. Hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through strong winds and aligned it above the launching pad at around 5,000 ft.
Elon Musk, CEO and founder of SpaceX, congratulated Blue Origin’s on Twitter for their achievement. Engadget reports, “SpaceX has managed to get its own reusable booster close to its barge platform, but hasn’t nailed the landing yet. Elon Musk’s company does have a more daunting task, however—it’s Falcon 9 reusable first stage is propelling the rocket to an orbital, not suborbital altitude.”
For those fledgling astronauts, who wish to float above the Earth’s atmosphere but don’t have the educational background or professional opportunity to do so, there’s good news. “Soon you’ll be able to climb aboard New Shepard and come home an astronaut,” Bezos writes. Those interested can sign up for updates here.
A Blue Origins video states passengers will float for 4 min before descending back to Earth in the detachable capsule. The capsule’s parachute, in the test run, deployed at 20,045 ft.