On Friday, Blue Origin launched their same New Shepard rocket booster that it launched into space two months ago. Looks like the commercial space race for reusable rockets is on—SpaceX is flashier with bigger trajectories, but Blue Origin keeps winning the race to first.
The original New Shepard flight in November boosted the rocket to 329,839 feet altitude (100.5 kilometers), and landed it vertically back at their test field in Texas. This carried it above above the Karman line, the official definition of the hazy boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and space, making it the first rocket to travel to space and return to land vertically back on Earth.
At the time, SpaceX’s Elon Musk gave Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos grief (mixed with congratulations) that getting to space wasn’t the same as orbital spaceflight. He legitimately emphasized that what he was doing with SpaceX and the Falcon 9 was in a totally different class. SpaceX pulled off its own first post-mission vertical landing a month later, delivering a Falcon 9 rocket to Cape Canaveral in Florida.
We totally agree with Musk—Blue Origin is bopping around the bunny slopes while SpaceX is skipping through moguls on black diamond death traps—but it’s delightful to see so much progress on the same concept. To bring the winter imagery to the snapping point, at least both companies are pushing their individual technologies and techniques for reusable rockets, not hiding in the lodge whining about how it’s cold and impossible outside.
New Shepard landing in November 2015. Image credit: Blue Origin
We’ve covered SpaceX running its recovered Falcon 9 through its post-flight checkup, but haven’t heard a peep from Blue Origin until today. Apparently New Shepard performed almost exactly to modeled predictions, making refurbishment straightforward. Engineers replaced crew capsule parachutes and pyro igniters, ran checkups, and upgraded the software.
In its second flight, New Shepard reached an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers). It’s landing this time was a little different. Part of the software upgrade was reprioritizing how the rocket targets touchdown. The rocket no longer aims for the center of the pad at all costs. Instead although it targets the center, it will down anywhere convenient. In more technical terms, it prioritized the vertical altitude over longitudinal adjustments, meaning that it doesn’t make last-minute swerves compensating for low-altitude gusts just before landing.
The same New Shepard rocket launching and landing again in January 2016. Image credit: Blue Origin
Unlike Musk’s plan to put his landed Falcon 9 in a museum (or at least never fly it again), Bezos is already planning on launching and landing this same rocket again and again and again all year long. In a statement accompanying the video release, he also writes that this year will see more testing of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.
This is the best space race ever. Between Blue Origin’s tourism and SpaceX’s payloads, reusable rockets are going to become a mundane reality. It’s going to be an incredible day when vertical landings are on par with the (admittedly always excellent) excitement of a launch where we debate if they’re novel enough to cover. The future is spellbinding.
Update: Blue Origin released an adorable video of just how excited their team was with each landing. Excited engineers are also excellent!
Top image: Blue Origin’s New Shepard launching on January 22, 2016 after previously launching and landing in November 2015. Image credit: Blue Origin/Mika McKinnon.