SOMETIMES, the dark horses are the ones to watch. On November 23rd Blue Origin, a publicity-shy rocketry firm owned by Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, announced that it had achieved something spectacular. Not only did its (uncrewed) New Shepard craft make it safely back to Earth after a brief sojourn in space—so, too, did the BE-3 rocket booster that launched New Shepard in the first place. After separating from the spacecraft, the rocket fell back to Earth. At around 1.5km from the ground, it reignited its engines, slowing its fall and leading to the controlled, gentle landing that can be seen in the video below (for those who wish to skip the PR, the action begins around 1:35). To quote the firm’s triumphant press release: “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.”
At the moment, space rockets are one-shot machines. After boosting their payload to the required speed and altitude, they fall back to Earth—often breaking up in the atmosphere on the way. That is one reason why space flight is so eye-wateringly expensive. It is a bit like blowing up your car after every trip and having to buy a new one. Rocket scientists have been trying to make rockets reusable for decades. The closest they have come, until now, was the Space Shuttle. But even this (besides being even more expensive than an ordinary rocket) was only partly reusable, with the giant external fuel tank being discarded after launch.
So Blue Origin’s machine is a technical triumph. Unlike the Shuttle’s solid-fuelled boosters, which relied on parachutes to splash down into the ocean (whence they had to be recovered by America’s navy), Blue Origin’s machine landed itself like the rockets of science fiction, by reigniting its engines and balancing on its exhaust until it was safely home.
The BE-3’s flight is a publicity coup. SpaceX, a more established (and less camera-shy) rocketry firm founded by Elon Musk, another internet billionaire, has also been working on reusable rockets. The most recent versions of its Falcon boosters are designed to land themselves on uncrewed ocean-going platforms. SpaceX has come close to pulling that off on several occasions, but so far all its efforts have ended in (often spectacular) failure. Now Mr Bezos’s firm has beaten it to the punch.
Yet that is not quite a fair comparison. Blue Origin’s main focus, at least for now, is space tourism. The idea is to take a handful of paying customers on a joyride to the edge of space, rather than to heave things all the way into orbit—a task for which much higher speed is required. The firm’s unmanned crew capsule squeaked into space on a technicality. Its maximum altitude on this flight was 100.5 km, a hair’s breadth above the 100km limit that (rather arbitrarily) is considered to mark the border of space. Blue Origin’s competitor in that market is not SpaceX, but Virgin Galactic, another orbital-tourism firm, which suffered a serious setback last year when one of its spaceships crashed during a test-flight, killing one of the two pilots on board. SpaceX, by contrast, is already flying all the way into orbit, and is doing so for real money. Its craft both deliver supplies to the International Space Station and launch satellites for paying customers.
None of this, though, detracts from Blue Origin’s achievement. Mr Musk has estimated that reusable rockets could cut the cost of a space launch by a hundredfold. When and if that era of cheap launches arrives, Blue Origin will have earned its place in the history books.