The Reusable Rocket is Now a Reality
The folks at Blue Origin made science fiction come to life on November 23rd with the launch of the New Shepard space vehicle. It’s designed to launch, deploy its crew capsule payload, and then land safely back on its retractable legs. The test, which took place in Texas, looked almost too easy — but it showed that reusable rockets are here to stay, and that’s a HUGE advance in spacecraft engineering in the current round of development.
Settling a rocket back onto the ground “bottom first” on its retractable legs is not an easy task. It can be blown off course if winds kick up, and of course, there are the technical challenges of making sure all the rockets and electronics work in synchrony to guide the rocket back down over a narrow path. As you can see from the picture, the rocket did fine, landing right on the pad, with only a few burn marks on its rear end to show for its trouble.
Watch this video of the test provided by the Blue Origin team. It’s very cool.
Anybody who has read science fiction or seen SF movies with rockets routinely settling back to Earth after their journeys will recognize the beauty of what Jeff Bezos’s team has achieved. It’s another step into making space more accessible, particularly inspiring after the retirement of the space shuttle fleet a few years ago. In the first Space Race, there wasn’t the time to properly develop the “land the rocket back on the ground” capability, although there were early tests of reusable rockets with the DC-X by the folks at McDonnell-Douglas in the 1990s (thanks to Aldo Spadoni for pointing that out). But, the expendable rocket carried through all the world’s launches. Today, that’s changing — why throw away rockets if you can save money by safely reusing them? That’s what this test (and SpaceX’s tests) are trying to prove.
This test took place at the Blue Origin test site in Texas, and the missile reached an altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 meters). At that altitude, the crew capsule separated from the rocket and deployed parachutes for safe landing. The rocket then reversed course and settled back onto the pad in an amazing controlled landing.
So, this is a game-changer for space flight. It means that rockets can be re-used. After a thorough set of test flights like this one, Blue Origin’s vehicle can begin taking astronauts to space for a wide selection of crewed missions. This is something that the SpaceX team (led by Elon Musk) also is trying to do, but their attempted landings on a floating barge have been unsuccessful. The last one saw their rocket get back to the barge, but in the last few seconds, the vehicle blew over. Since SpaceX has a contract with NASA to provide crew launch capabilities with its rocket, this latest test ups the ante in the private business space race. Stay tuned!