On Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017, the private company Blue Origin quietly took a couple of big steps in the realm of commercial space: They launched a new rocket with a new capsule mounted on top, and brought both back down safely.
They posted a video with highlights of the flight:
Prior to this, Blue Origin has launched their New Shepard suborbital rocket six times; the first launched in April 2015, but the hydraulics on the landing system failed, resulting in the loss of the rocket. A new one then had an amazing five tests in a row, successfully launching, going straight up, deploying the crew capsule, then landing back down again vertically. During that run they also performed variations on the tests, including landing the capsule successfully despite using only two of the three parachutes, and dramatically testing the abort rocket system in case of a catastrophic launch problem.
That rocket has since been retired, so this latest launch — a little over a year since the last one — was using a brand-new booster. It was carrying a significantly upgraded crew capsule as well, rigged for carrying passengers, including seats and fitted with bigger (73 x 110 centimeter) windows. Mind you, the whole idea here is to take paying customers up in the rocket, so these upgrades are important.
The whole flight took a little over 10 minutes. The booster achieved a speed of nearly three times the speed of sound on its way up, reaching a height of 98.16 kilometers above the ground. The crew capsule achieved a height of 98.26 km, just under the Kármán Line, the officially recognized demarcation of space at 100 km.
Coming back down, the booster got to Mach 3.7 before reigniting its engine and slowing its descent. It landed right back down on the pad safely. The capsule fell significantly more slowly due to deploying three parachutes, and touched back down at a stately pace of less than 2 kilometers per hour. Passengers would have felt a bump, but that's about it.
Speaking of which, while no humans were on board, there were a dozen scientific experiments on board to take advantage of the near weightless conditions as the capsule traveled on its parabolic arc, as well as a dummy strapped into one of the seats to give test readings on the forces involved.
The dummy's nickname? Mannequin Skywalker. Hmmmm. I can't help but think that's a bit of snark in line with the ongoing somewhat-more-than-teasing words exchanged on Twitter by Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
Speaking of which, I'll note that the two companies have more or less similar eventual goals: Launching big rockets with people and equipment into space. The paths they're taking are different, though. Blue Origin is launching suborbital rockets first — they go basically straight up and then back down — with an eye toward selling passengers tickets. The profit then goes into further R&D to build bigger rockets (which they've already announced).
SpaceX instead is launching rockets into orbit, which takes considerably more energy. The money made there is in selling space onboard to space agencies or companies that need satellites launched.
Both, though, are doing something I strongly support: Making space travel easier, cheaper, and more reliable. NASA and other countries' space agencies are amazing and doing fantastic work, but commercial enterprises can do something big government bureaucracies struggle to do: Be flexible. That is part of the key to why they are developing these vehicles so rapidly compared to, say, the Space Launch System (which has recently been delayed yet again). A government agency is many things — generally well-funded, stable, and able to absorb delays and costs — but nimble isn't one of them. That’s not their purpose.
And that's a big reason I support what SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, and other companies are doing. With public and private cooperation, I think we're well on our way to getting back into space, and staying there.