Two months ago Blue Origin, the space firm created by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, demonstrated its New Shepard launch system by flying it to a height of 100.5km and landing the rocket back on Earth.
Yesterday, Blue Origin upped the ante by launching exactly the same rocket for the second time. The New Shepared rocket reached an altitude of 101.7km, just above the Karman line, the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space, and landed both the capsule and the booster gently on Earth.
According to Blue Origin, this is the first rocket to fly above the Karman Line and then land vertically upon the Earth for a second time. On the Blue Origin blog, Bezos writes that data from the November launch matched preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for the rocket's re-use relatively straightforward:
The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.
Bezos also expands a bit on his vision for the future, why the company focuses on rocket-powered vertical landing versus wings and parachutes and the goal of millions of people living and working in space:
Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, I’m a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because — to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space — we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger. Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. We solved the inverted pendulum problem on New Shepard with an engine that dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends. And since New Shepard is the smallest booster we will ever build, this carefully choreographed dance atop our plume will just get easier from here. We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle. Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it’s still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year.
Blue Origins plans many more re-use missions of its New Shepard rocket, and expects to start full-engine testing of its much more powerful BE-4 rocket later this year. The current BE-3 rocket offers a thrust at sea level of 110,000 lb, whereas the future BE-4 rocket can deliver a thrust of 550,000 lb.
On a related note, here's a video clip of a descent landing tether test of SpaceX's Dragon capsule. These SuperDraco engines promise to be capable of landing a human-rated spacecraft safely on the ground with the accuracy of a helicopter. NASA does note that propulsive landings will not be used for the scheduled missions with NASA astronauts to the ISS, these missions will splash down in the ocean under parachutes.