Blue Origin, the private space company founded by Amazon entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, pulled off a pretty incredible looking double bullseye today: it successfully landed both its ejected crew capsule (nobody was inside it, this time), and its rocket booster, after launching both up to an altitude of about 16,000 feet.
While both landings bode well for the company's ultimate goals to take human tourists into space in the coming years, the landing of the rocket booster (known as the New Shepard) is the more impressive feat today, as Bezos and other company officials said there was a high chance it would be destroyed upon impact. This is the fifth successful vertical landing of the New Shepard booster rocket, an important proof-of-concept that rockets can be re-used for multiple launches, reducing the cost of space travel (and one that rival company SpaceX is also pursuing, albeit with landings on a floating barge).
"Nothing like a rocket and a countdown clock to get your heart going," Blue Origin's announcers said on the company's livestream, before liftoff. The purpose of today's test was to see how the crew escape system performed during flight.
Drama increased leading up to the test, as the countdown entered an unexpected hold. Engineers contemplated postponing the test, but didn't reveal any potential issues to the public. And whatever was holding things up, it didn't delay the launch for long: the countdown resumed (you can watch the launch beginning at about 1 hour, 4 minutes into Blue Origin's video).
As expected, about 45 seconds after liftoff, the escape system kicked in, igniting the rocket motor underneath the crew capsule. The motor burned for two seconds and carried the capsule up and away from the rocket booster. Then the capsule's parachutes deployed, allowing it to land safely.
Blue Origin was skeptical that the rocket could survive the blast from the escape system's jettison, but the booster was unscathed and continued to climb towards space.
Once it reached the edge of space, the booster began its descent. Following a series of braking maneuvers, the booster touched down gently just under eight minutes after takeoff.
After a bit of celebrating, the company plans on rewarding both the booster and the capsule. The dynamic duo will be retired to a museum (location T.B.D.) for the public to visit and view. Blue Origin will continue to test out systems on its rocket and crew capsule leading up to the first passenger flights, which are expected to take place in 2018.
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