But there are other private space outfits out there working tirelessly on developing similar kinds of kit, among them Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
The Amazon founder and CEO announced over the weekend that Blue Origin had managed to launch and land its New Shepard booster for a second time, marking the first time for a rocket to be reused in this way and taking the company a step closer to its goal of vastly reducing the cost of space travel. Indeed, Blue Origin’s stated vision is to one day have “millions of people living and working in space,” an ambition that it says can’t be achieved if you keep “throwing the hardware away.”
The New Shepard rocket blasted off from west Texas on Friday, reaching an altitude of 333,582 feet (63.2 miles) before returning to the launchpad for a what looked like a perfect landing. The mission was a repeat of the rocket’s initial outing back in November.
In a post announcing Friday’s achievement, Bezos said the two landings differed only in the way the rocket targeted the launchpad.
“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,” Bezos wrote.
“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.”
The capsule, which detached from the rocket as planned during Friday’s test mission, also returned to Earth intact and so it too can be used again in future test missions.
While some have downplayed Blue Origin’s recent achievements – describing its sub-orbital missions as overall less complex compared to SpaceX’s orbital efforts involving a much taller, thinner rocket – for Bezos these test runs are simply the forerunner to much more ambitious rocket-related endeavors.
The Amazon boss said Blue Origin is already “more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle,” describing it as “many times larger than New Shepard.” When that one gets off the ground – and hopefully back on it again – the competition between Blue Origin, SpaceX, and others to create a reliable, reusable launch system will surely only intensify.