The video shows the New Shepard rocket carrying the 530-cubic-foot crew capsule (enough room for six astronauts) into space and the capsule separating from the rocket some 333,000 feet (on the brink of outer space) above earth. The capsule floats back to earth and the rocket lands vertically. To use the words of Bezos, preparations were all very “straightforward” and the video makes it very much seem that way.
This means that space tourism is tantalizingly close for the rest of us. While there was nobody in the crew capsule (that we know about), it’s evidence this sort of trip can be made very soon. And if you’ve been listening to Bezos and Blue Origin, it’s just the beginning of a future that will eventually see “millions of people working and living in space.” It’s a mission statement of sorts for Bezos, and seems less like a dream with each successful landing.
What It Means for the New Space Race
There’s no doubt things are becoming competitive between Bezos’ Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. If you’re keeping score at home, Blue Origin was the first to vertically land a rocket back on earth. SpaceX followed suit about a month later. Last weekend, SpaceX saw its Falcon 9 rocket tip over and explode after attempting a third vertical droneship landing in the Pacific ocean. (If the idea of landing a rocket on a floating pad sounds like sci-fi, here’s why sea landings are a good idea.) Blue Origin’s yet to land a rocket on water, and Bezos, who’s been passive aggressive to Musk, encouraged his rival after the Falcon 9 failure:
Bezos sheds some light in his Friday night statement about why vertical landings are only going to get easier for Blue Origin and thereby, make space travel a little more real for the rest of us: “[T]he vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger. Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance.”
Here’s the full email:
The very same New Shepard booster that flew above the Karman line and then landed vertically at its launch site last November has now flown and landed again, demonstrating reuse. This time, New Shepard reached an apogee of 333,582 feet (101.7 kilometers) before both capsule and booster gently returned to Earth for recovery and reuse.
Data from the November mission matched our preflight predictions closely, which made preparations for today’s re-flight relatively straightforward. The team replaced the crew capsule parachutes, replaced the pyro igniters, conducted functional and avionics checkouts, and made several software improvements, including a noteworthy one. Rather than the vehicle translating to land at the exact center of the pad, it now initially targets the center, but then sets down at a position of convenience on the pad, prioritizing vehicle attitude ahead of precise lateral positioning. It’s like a pilot lining up a plane with the centerline of the runway. If the plane is a few feet off center as you get close, you don’t swerve at the last minute to ensure hitting the exact mid-point. You just land a few feet left or right of the centerline. Our Monte Carlo sims of New Shepard landings show this new strategy increases margins, improving the vehicle’s ability to reject disturbances created by low-altitude winds.
Though wings and parachutes have their adherents and their advantages, Im a huge fan of rocket-powered vertical landing. Why? Because to achieve our vision of millions of people living and working in space we will need to build very large rocket boosters. And the vertical landing architecture scales extraordinarily well. When you do a vertical landing, you’re solving the classic inverted pendulum problem, and the inverted pendulum problem gets a bit easier as the pendulum gets a bit bigger. Try balancing a pencil on the tip of your finger. Now try it with a broomstick. The broomstick is simpler because its greater moment of inertia makes it easier to balance. We solved the inverted pendulum problem on New Shepard with an engine that dynamically gimbals to balance the vehicle as it descends. And since New Shepard is the smallest booster we will ever build, this carefully choreographed dance atop our plume will just get easier from here. We’re already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle. Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it’s still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year.
Also this year, we’ll start full-engine testing of the BE-4 and launch and land our New Shepard rocket – again and again. If you want to stay up to date with all the interesting work that our team is doing, sign up for email updates at www.blueorigin.com/interested.
The new video of the January 22 test flight ends with that “millions” quote from Blue Origin: “Our vision: Millions of people living and working in space. You can’t get there by throwing the hardware away.” How’s that for confidence? It certainly strikes a different tone than the video released after New Shepard made its first trip to space and back, which was decidedly more … tense:
While it might tempting for spectators to say, “Your move, Elon Musk,” the SpaceX chief’s forecast for vertical landings was surprisingly realistic for 2016. This week, he projected just a 70 percent landing success rate for the Falcon 9 rocket, but increased that to 90 percent in 2017.
The competition between Bezos and Musk — and anyone else who gets this far into the space race — can only mean good things for the rest of us.