For the first time in history, a rocket has successfully taken off vertically, breached Earth’s atmosphere and entered space, and successfully landed intact and vertically, says Blue Origin, the private-spaceflight company owned by Jeff Bezos.
It says that its uncrewed Blue Shepard rocket accomplished the feat on Monday, November 23. Blue Origin—and Bezos—announced the successful flight in a tweet and video on Tuesday:
The rarest of beasts - a used rocket. Controlled landing not easy, but done right, can look easy. Check out video: https://t.co/9OypFoxZk3— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) November 24, 2015
Previously, rockets that propelled payloads to space were destroyed or lost in the process. Even the Space Shuttle, which returned to the ground intact and on its own power, required semi-disposable rockets to get it to flight: Its solid rocket boosters fell off during take-off and required months of refurbishment to be usable again. But Blue Shepard and vehicles like it return to Earth vertically, in the same orientation as how they launched, a task known in the industry as “VTOL” or “vertical take-off and landing.”
Blue Shepard’s flight ends a de facto private space-race between two companies founded by victors of the ‘90s tech boom: Bezos’s Blue Origin and Space X, the aerospace firm owned by Elon Musk. Unlike Blue Shepard, which lands upright on land, Space X’s Falcon 9 rocket is meant to rendezvous with a “drone barge” in the middle of the ocean. But Falcon 9 rockets failed to complete vertical landings in February and April of this year, and one exploded shortly after launch in June.
After Blue Shepard’s announcement, Musk congratulated Bezos on Twitter:
Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving VTOL on their booster— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
But he followed up by cautioning that Blue Origin and SpaceX were ultimately chasing different goals:
It is, however, important to clear up the difference between "space" and "orbit", as described well by https://t.co/7PD42m37fZ— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but GTO orbit requires ~Mach 30. The energy needed is the square, i.e. 9 units for space and 900 for orbit.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 24, 2015
Musk is drawing an important distinction. Blue Shepard didn’t enter orbit. Instead it merely departed the atmosphere and deposited its uncrewed pod at the edge of space for four minutes. (The pod returned to Earth via parachute.) Musk’s Falcon 9, on the other hand, seeks to place satellites and humans into low-Earth orbit and beyond. In fact, the craft has already helped to place NASA and NOAA’s DSCOVR satellite at the first Lagrangian point, a deep-space location far beyond the moon.
Despite being in the same race, the two companies are ultimately in very different businesses. The video for Blue Origin above is essentially a tourism video, advertising the company’s future four-minutes-in-space attraction. Space X, on the other hand, is in the exploration—and government contracting—business. It addresses itself to the public to gain fans, but, ultimately, its great customer will be the government.