They finally did it! And it wasn't Elon Musks SpaceX but Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon's owner Jeff Bezos. On November 23rd Blue Origin launched a rocket, sent it up to an altitude of 100.5 km and had it come back down to land safely on its tail.
It's beautiful to see the mechanics work. The rocket is clearly balanced the same way somebody balances a broomstick on her finger. Also interesting: the rocket is in free fall until about a mile up. Only then are the engines started to slow it down and make it touch down perfectly.
Landing a rocket on its back end, as opposed to having them crash to pieces after each and every flight, is a holy grail of spaceflight. If you can pull that off, you can re-use your rockets instead of building a new one each time. That could make launches about ten times cheaper, opening up space for many more companies and countries.
But it's hard. SpaceX tried several times so far and failed. It's hard to do technically, but also economically. To be able to land you need to have just a bit of extra fuel on board, and to have that available when you descend, you first have to take it all the way up, which requires extra fuel... etcetera. The margins are slim.
So Bezos won this one, and it's fun to note that after Blue Origin's announcement both captains of industry engaged in some friendly trash talk. But it's fair to say that Blue Origin cheated just a little. All attempted landings of SpaceX's Falcon rockets were done after a real-life mission, where satellites were launched or the space station was supplied. That means the rocket had to be bigger, carry more fuel and go into orbit which means a greater altitude. It also means some manoeuvering on the way, which complicates matters. Blue Origin went just to the edge of 'space' and immediately returned, without doing anything useful. That way it could minimize all requirements. SpaceX did successful tail landings many times before by just having a rocket lift off and land immediately.
So what will be possible if this kind of landing becomes routine? In the video below Blue Origin mixes pictures of yesterday's flight with its own vision. Space tourism. Indeed, if you can get rid of splashdowns or bumpy landings in Kazachstan and if you can just return to the launch pad after your space sightseeing trip (not to mention your weightlessness experience), spaceflight becomes more comfortable too. The video below is in part a report on yesterday's successful flight and in part a commercial, touting this product that Blue Origin hopes to offer in the not too distant future.
Herbert Blankesteijn is a technology journalist from the Netherlands who has written for many prominent Dutch newspapers. He presented and directed television and radio programmes and has 10 books to his name. Herbert is interested in nascent fields such as 3D printing, drones, robotics and the private space business.