Blue Origin repeats launch-and-landing feat

Image: Blue Origin landing
Blue Origin’s New Shepard propulsion module fires its rocket engines for a soft landing. It marked the second trip to space and touchdown for the same prototype vehicle. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture sent up its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on another flight test to outer-space altitudes today, and brought it back to a safe landing.

The uncrewed flight at Bezos’ West Texas test facility arguably marks the first time that a reusable rocket designed for a vertical landing proved to be actually reusable for space missions.

There are caveats to that claim, to be sure: The SpaceShipOne rocket plane, the X-15 and NASA’s space shuttles have all demonstrated reusability after going into space. Those craft landed horizontally, like an airplane, rather than vertically. In addition, test rockets flown by the DC-X program as well as Masten Space Systems, Armadillo Aerospace and SpaceX have been reused after taking vertical hops. However, those rockets stuck to altltudes below 100 kilometers (62 miles), the internationally accepted boundary of outer space.

Despite all the caveats, Blue Origin’s feat marks a significant step toward flying reusable rocket ships on suborbital space trips on a commercial basis, for tourism as well as for research.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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