Blue Origin, the private space company backed by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, just quietly made space history. It successfully landed a spent rocket in the desert of West Texas on Monday, potentially ushering in the next stage of space exploration.
For years now, we've been getting regular updates (sometimes accompanied with dramatic videos of exploding rockets) on rival space company SpaceX's efforts to land a reusable rocket back on Earth. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and CEO of Tesla, has been vocal about developing reusable rockets to drive down the high costs of the space program. With minimal fanfare, Blue Origin beat the Muskian hype machine to the history e-books.
"Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts -- a used rocket," Bezos said in a release Tuesday. "Blue Origin's reusable New Shepard space vehicle flew a flawless mission -- soaring to 329,839 feet and then returning through 119-mph high-altitude crosswinds to make a gentle, controlled landing just 4 and a half feet from the center of the pad."
That altitude of 329,839 feet, or about 100.5 kilometers, is significant. It's just past what's known as the Karman line, generally accepted as the dividing line between the edge of Earth's atmosphere and outer space.
Bezos, Musk and others have been chasing a vision of recyclable rockets. They have the potential to drive down the cost of escaping Earth's gravity by an order of magnitude, which would open up a brand new world of space tourism, mining, exploration and research. Right now, most things that go into space either end up burning up in the atmosphere or crashing into the ocean after only one use.
"Full reuse is a game changer, and we can't wait to fuel up and fly again," Bezos said.
Blue Origin released a video, see below, documenting the historic takeoff and landing of the New Shepard rocket from its launch site in Texas. It's a surprisingly beautiful thing to watch.
The man-made rocket touches space and then falls back toward the ground, firing up its rockets about a mile above the surface to execute a graceful and controlled landing. The machine, which is designed to overcome gravity, has to work with the mysterious force to avoid destruction on landing. All this is accomplished with the hope that the rocket will conquer gravity again another day.
Now that Bezos and Blue Origin have successfully launched a rocket to space and returned it to Earth in one piece, they're wasting no time revving up the marketing machine.
The video does not shy away from mixing in its marketing message. The entire thing is an advertisement for similar manned flights to the edge of space that Blue Origin plans to offer to citizen space tourists in the future. The video concludes with this statement: "Perfect landing. We made history today. Now who wants to go to space?"
In a phone call with reporters on Tuesday, Bezos said he hopes to see people aboard Blue Origin launches in "a couple of years."
Suddenly it seems like more than just a punchline that people might one day purchase that opportunity through Amazon.