Blue Origin reflies New Shepard suborbital vehicle


WASHINGTON — Blue Origin successfully launched and landed Jan. 22 the same New Shepard vehicle that flew in November, a demonstration of the vehicle’s reusability and the latest round of one-upmanship in its rivalry with SpaceX.

The suborbital New Shepard vehicle took off from Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas early Jan. 22 and reached a peak altitude of 101.7 kilometers. The vehicle’s conical crew capsule separated and parachuted to a soft landing, while the cylindrical propulsion module made a powered vertical landing on a landing pad several kilometers from the launch site.

“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,” company founder Jeff Bezos wrote in a blog post late Jan. 22. The von Karman line, an altitude of 100 kilometers, is a commonly used, although not universally accepted, boundary of space.

The same vehicle also flew a suborbital flight on Nov. 23 from the same site, reaching a peak altitude of 100.5 kilometers. That flight was the first time the vehicle’s propulsion module made a successful powered landing, after a hydraulic problem prevented a landing during an April flight.

Bezos’ post was the company’s first acknowledgement of the test flight. The company provided no advance notice of the test, a practice it has followed in earlier test flights. A temporary flight restriction published by the Federal Aviation Administration Jan. 21, limiting access to airspace around the test site for two days for “space flight operations,” was the only official hint of an impending test.

That November test escalated an existing a rivalry with SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk. After that test, Bezos tweeted a link to the video and called New Shepard “the rarest of beasts – a used rocket.” Musk objected in a series of tweets, noting low-altitude vertical landing tests of SpaceX’s Grasshopper vehicle as well as the differences between suborbital and orbital flight.

On Dec. 21, SpaceX successfully landed the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, ten minutes after liftoff on a mission to deliver 11 Orbcomm satellites into orbit. The stage is significantly larger than the New Shepard propulsion module and traveled much higher. “Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage,” Bezos tweeted after the flight. “Welcome to the club!”

The latest New Shepard flight is the first time a vehicle that flew at least suborbitally and made a powered vertical landing repeated that feat. While SpaceX performed a test firing of the landed Falcon 9 stage on its Cape Canaveral pad Jan. 15, Musk said in December there were no plans to refly this stage.

New Shepard is not the first reusable suborbital vehicle. SpaceShipOne, built by Scaled Composites and funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, made three flights to altitudes of at least 100 kilometers in 2004, including two within a week in late September and early October that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize. The U.S. Air Force’s X-15 made 199 flights between 1959 and 1968, including back-to-back flights in 1963 that flew to altitudes above 105 kilometers.

Both SpaceShipOne and X-15 were winged vehicles, launched from aircraft and gliding back to runway landings. Bezos, though, wrote in his blog post that the vertical landings demonstrated by New Shepard are preferable to wings or parachutes. “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,” he wrote.

Bezos subtly suggested that the powered landing performed by New Shepard was a more difficult achievement than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 landing last month. “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,” he wrote.

Blue Origin is working on an orbital launch vehicle. The company has disclosed little information about the vehicle, but at an event at Cape Canaveral in September to announce the company’s plans to build and launch rockets there, the company showed illustrations of a two-stage rocket whose first stage featured landing legs to enable a landing. Bezos wrote that he hopes to provide more details about that vehicle later this year.

Not everyone, though, agrees with Blue Origin’s preference with vertical landings. “Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t,” Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, said of competition with Blue Origin and SpaceX during an interview with CNBC Jan. 22 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Branson was referring to SpaceShipTwo, Virgin Galactic’s suborbital vehicle, which like SpaceShipOne is air-launched and glides to a runway landing. The company plans to unveil in February a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle, replacing one destroyed in an October 2014 test flight accident.

“People will have a choice of which spaceships they want to use to get to space,” Branson said. “Because ours is shaped like an airplane, we hope to do point-to-point travel one day. Theirs is not.”