Amazon boss and space pioneer Jeff Bezos scored an historic technical achievement on Monday when his secretive Blue Origin space travel company successfully sent a rocket 100 kilometres up into space and then, in a carefully controlled descent, landed it upright just 1.3 metres from the centre of its launch pad.
"Here in mission control in West Texas, there wasn't a dry eye in the house," Bezos said in a media conference call on Tuesday. "It was one of the greatest moments of my life."
Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, inspects New Shepard’s West Texas launch facility before the rocket’s maiden voyage. Photo: Blue Origin
Blue Origin released the news of its feat, complete with dramatic video of the lift-off and landing at its remote test launch site in Van Horn, Texas, a day after it happened.
The New Shepard rocket - named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space - delivered an empty crew capsule into space. The capsule, using parachutes, also landed safely 11 minutes after lift-off.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, as he unveiled a Blue Origin rocket, at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida two months ago. Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack
But it was the controlled return of the launch rocket that was a first. Until now, space rockets have been expendable - used once, then allowed to fall into the ocean.
"Not any more," Bezos wrote in a blog post. "Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket."
In the teleconference, Bezos described the ability to land a rocket so it can be used again, thus sharply reducing the enormous cost of putting vehicles into space, as "the Holy Grail of rocketry".
"To get full re-use, to [be able to] refuel and fly again, to eventually get to something closer to aircraft-type operations, that has to be the vision," he said.
Blue Origin tried to achieve this on its initial test flight in April, but failed when a hydraulic system malfunctioned. Elon Musk's SpaceX has come close on three occasions, but hasn't yet succeeded.
In this space race between the billionaires, Bezos now has bragging rights.
The Blue Origin success prompted something of a snit between Bezos and Musk. On Twitter, Musk first congratulated Blue Origin, but then pointedly noted that achieving sub-orbital space flight for a few minutes is far short of going into orbit. SpaceX's Falcon rockets have boosted spacecraft into orbit to deliver goods to the International Space Station.
And playing down Blue Origin's achievement, Musk noted that credit for the first reusable suborbital rocket goes to the 1960s-era X-15 Air Force rocket plane.
However, the X-15 was never designed to go into orbit. Bezos's orbital system will be bigger than New Shepard but will share the same architecture.
On the conference call, Bezos responded to Musk's tweeted remarks by noting that Blue Origin's New Shepard had just achieved "the hardest part of vertical landing and re-usability ... the final landing segment" - the feat SpaceX's Falcon rockets have not yet achieved.
And Bezos, who retains the enthusiasm he had as a 5-year-old boy watching the Apollo missions on TV, can certainly match Musk in ambition.
Blue Origin's rocket used a unique ring fin to shift the centre of pressure aft to help control re-entry and descent and eight large drag brakes deployed and reduced the vehicle's terminal speed to 622 km/h.
Then, hydraulically actuated fins steered the vehicle through 192 km/h high-altitude crosswinds to a precise location 1.5 kilometres above the landing pad. At that point, the rocket's engine re-ignited to slow it as the landing gear deployed.
New Shephard descended the last 30 mtres at 7 km/h to touch down on the launch pad.
"I believe this is a new Golden Age of space exploration. The first Golden Age was the '60s. We have been treading water for a long time," said Bezos. "We are on the verge of a new Golden Age in rocketry. I believe one day all rockets will have landing gear."
Describing the planned trajectory for his New Shepard project in some detail for the first time on Tuesday, Bezos said Blue Origin's schedule will be "step-by-step, very methodical" and will take a human crew into space "when we're ready and not before".
"We're going to do many, many test flights before we're ready to put humans on board," he said. "We'll do some very stressful, challenging flights."
"Hopefully a couple of years from now we'll be putting humans on New Shepard and taking them into space," Bezos added.
Bezos described one planned test flight that he said will be "very dramatic" - testing the crew capsule escape system. If something goes wrong on the way up, the capsule has a separate rocket motor that can fire to push it away from the main rocket. Bezos said this will be tested in flight when the launch rocket is at maximum aerodynamic stress.
"That will almost certainly destroy the booster, but we want to test that condition to verify the design of the escape system," Bezos said.
Bezos said his engineers learn from each test flight and may modify sub-systems as they progress. After the hydraulics failed in April, Bezos said, Blue Origin completely redesigned the hydraulic system and it worked perfectly this time.
Asked how soon the rocket that just landed could go back into space, Bezos said preliminary checks suggested it is essentially ready, though more thorough inspections must be done. "We'll have to wait some number of weeks before we can fly that hardware again."
Bezos also talked about plans to take the next step beyond just reaching space and coming back down minutes later: going fast enough to stay up there, meaning going into orbit around the earth.
Blue Origin is building a bigger, more sophisticated orbital spacecraft that will take off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. But Bezos said his engineers have just nailed the most difficult part of the orbital mission plan with the re-entry and landing of New Shepard.
"We'll take that same exact architecture we just demonstrated and use it on the booster stage of our orbital vehicle," Bezos said. "The re-entry and final landing will be identical."
For that orbital vehicle, however, the plan is to land the booster rocket "on an ocean-going platform down range" of Cape Canaveral.
That is exactly what Musk has been trying to achieve with SpaceX. Each time he's tried, his rocket has tipped into the ocean.
Musk says he wants to go to Mars and make space travel routine. Bezos equally aims to make science fiction a reality.
"The long-term vision is to see an enduring human presence in space. We want to see millions of people living and working in space," said Bezos. "It'll be a very fun test program. It's very fun to fly."