Blue Origin, the private space firm owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has just dropped a huge gauntlet in the race to develop a reusable rocket. It just launched its New Shepard space vehicle (video, below), consisting of a BE-3 rocket and crew capsule, to the edge of space at a suborbital altitude of 100.5 kilometers (62 miles). The capsule then separated and touched down beneath a parachute, but more importantly, the BE-3 rocket also started its own descent. After the rockets fired at nearly 5,000 feet, it made a a controlled vertical landing at a gentle 4.4 mph.
So far, 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 — its much larger Falcon 9 reusable first stage is propelling the rocket to an orbital, not suborbital altitude. While SpaceX’s rocket separates at a similar height of around 50 miles, its speed at that point is much faster than that of New Shepard — around Mach 10 compared to Mach 3.7. As a result, it continues to an apogee height of nearly 90 miles, so it has a lot further to fall. During its last attempt, the rocket unfortunately exploded early in the flight, setting the program back significantly.
Bezos boasted that the BE-3 is “now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas, [and] is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket.” He added that “it flew a flawless mission — soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 199-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just four-and-a-half feet from the center of the pad.” In the video below, you can see the rocket approaching the ground at dramatically high speeds, then slowing rapidly with a final rocket thrust as the landing gear deploys. Meanwhile, the drogue parachutes on the capsule unfurled at 20,045 feet, helping the crew craft make a (fairly) gentle desert “splashdown.”