Blue Origin's reusable New Shepard booster first stage stands atop a pad following its successful landing during an unmanned test flight from West Texas that launched up to suborbital space and returned safely to Earth on Nov. 23, 2015.
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The private spaceflight company Blue Origin just launched itself into the history books by successfully flying and landing a reusable rocket.
Powered by the company's own BE-3 engine, the rocket kicked off the launchpad yesterday (Nov. 23) at 11:21 a.m. Central Time, carrying the New Shepard space vehicle. The stunning feat was captured in an amazing test flight video released by the company.
Shortly after liftoff, the rocket separated from the vehicle. In the past, a spent rocket would fall back to Earth like a stone, having completed its one and only flight.
But Blue Origin's rocket didn't fall aimlessly back to Earth; instead, it was guided toward a landing pad, where it re-ignited its engines, hovered briefly above the ground and finally touched down softly on the pad, remaining upright and intact. This soft landing means the rocket can be used for more flights, which Blue Origin and other companies have said will significantly drive down the cost of spaceflight. [See more photos of Blue Origin's epic test flight]
Blue Origin billionaire founder Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com's CEO) and team members celebrate after the successful first spaceflight and landing of its New Shepard spacecraft and booster. The test flight launched from West Texas on Nov. 23, 2015.Pin It Blue Origin billionaire founder Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com's CEO) and team members celebrate after the successful first spaceflight and landing of its New Shepard spacecraft and booster. The test flight launched from West Texas on Nov. 23, 2015.
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No other agency or company has successfully landed a reusable rocket on the ground after flying the vehicle to space.
"Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore," stated a blog post on the company's website, written by founder Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who also founded Amazon.com. "Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket. This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design."
Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket first stage descends toward its landing pad after a successful unmanned suborbital test flight from its West Texas launch site on Nov. 23, 2015 in this still image from a Blue Origin video.Pin It Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket first stage descends toward its landing pad after a successful unmanned suborbital test flight from its West Texas launch site on Nov. 23, 2015 in this still image from a Blue Origin video.
Blue Origin's New Shepard capsule reached a maximum altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) and a speed of Mach 3.72, meaning 3.72 times the speed of sound, or about 2,854 mph (4,593 km/h), according a press release.
"As far as we can tell from our quick-look inspections, and our quick look at the data, this mission was completely nominal, and this vehicle is ready to fly again," Bezos told reporters today (Nov. 24) in a press briefing. He added that the rocket's hydraulic system, which suffered an anomaly on the last New Shepard test flight, "performed perfectly," during Monday's test.
The company's press release also laid out the details of the rocket booster landing. The rocket's physical design first helped it to glide back toward the launch pad. Closer to the ground, the vehicle's eight "drag brakes" reduced its terminal speed to 387 mph (622 km/h). Additional fins on the outside of the vehicle "steered it through 119-mph [192 km/h] high-altitude crosswinds to a location precisely aligned with and 5,000 feet [1,500 meters] above the landing pad," the release stated.
Finally, the BE-3 engine re-ignited "to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed and the vehicle descended the last 100 feet [30 m] at 4.4 mph [7.1 km/h] to touch down on the pad."
The New Shepard crew vehicle also landed safely, guided down to Earth by parachutes.
Blue Origin's New Shepard space capsule floats back to Earth under parachutes after a successful unmanned suborbital test flight from the company's West Texas facility on Nov. 23, 2015.