Spaceflight Insider

Blue Origin lands New Shepard spacecraft after flight to edge of space

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New Shepard lifts off the pad on Nov. 23, 2015. (Click to enlarge.) Photo Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin successfully flew their New Shepard suborbital spacecraft and booster to space on an unpiloted test reaching a planned altitude of 329,839 feet (100.5 kilometers) before landing back at the launch site. The secretive launch was hailed as a triumph – one richly deserved.

The launch occurred at 11:21 p.m. CST (5:21 GMT) on Nov. 23, 2015, from the company’s West Texas launch site. New Shepard, named in honor of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, is a fully reusable vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) rocket.

New Shepard is comprised of two parts: the booster itself and a crew capsule. The BE-3 engine provided 110,000 lbs of thrust during ascent pushing the craft to Mach 3.72 before coasting to the edge of space. The vehicle and capsule then separated. The capsule returned to terra firma via parachutes while the booster conducted a controlled descent. The BE-3 engine re-ignited at 4,896 feet (1492 meters) above the ground and slowed to 4.4 miles (7.1 kilometers) per hour before gently landing just over four feet from the landing pad.

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Jeff Bezos and the Blue Origin team celebrate the first successful landing from space of the New Shepard booster. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

“Rockets have always been expendable,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin in a statement. “Not anymore. Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket.”

Bezos said that New Shepard flew a flawless mission even though it returned through 119-mile (192-kilometer) per hour  high-altitude crosswinds to make the controlled landing.

“Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again,” Bezos said.

The capsule, which can hold six people, was uncrewed during this flight. It experienced about five times the force of gravity during its coast back down to Earth before deploying drogue parachutes at 20,045 feet (6,110 meters) above the ground. The landing of the capsule under the main parachutes occurred at 11:32 CST (5:32 GMT).

Bezos said the flight validates the vehicle’s overall architecture and design. The booster has a unique ring fin designed to shift the center of pressure aft to help control re-entry and descent. It has eight large drag breaks that deploy and help reduce the vehicle’s terminal velocity – the point where the force of gravity is the same as the opposite force of air resistance – to 387 miles (623 kilometers) per hour.

Hydraulically controlled fins steered the vehicle and precisely aligned with the pad. The BE-3 engine, which is described highly throttleable, re-ignited to slow the booster as the landing gear deployed at the last 100 feet (30 meters) above the pad.

Not everybody was impressed, though. SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, took to Twitter to congratulate the Blue Origin team before going on to “clear up” the difference between space and orbit.

“Getting to space needs ~Mach 3, but [geostationary transfer orbit] orbit requires ~Mach 30,” Musk tweeted.

Musk’s SpaceX has been working on their own reusable rocket with the Falcon 9 first stage booster.

“Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013,” Musk tweeted soon after. “Orbital water landing 2014. Orbital land landing next.”

SpaceX started their reusable test program in 2013 with the Grasshopper test article. It flew a number of times, but not more than 2,500 feet (762 meters). Later, an evolved test article, called F9R (Falcon 9 Reusable), flew a number of times as high as 3,280 feet (1,000 meters) before the vehicle self-destructed on Aug. 22, 2014, due to an in-flight anomaly.

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The New Shepard vehicle sits on the pad after having successfully flown to suborbital space and back. Photo Credit: Blue Origin

SpaceX’s water landings were also not from orbit, as Musk tweeted, rather from a mission that was heading to orbit. The Falcon 9 first stage was on a suborbital trajectory and controlled itself to an almost successful touchdown on their Automated Spaceport Drone Ship on April 14, 2015. The booster landed on the platform, but toppled over due to “excessive lateral momentum“.

While Blue Origin did land, successfully, a reusable rocket from space before SpaceX, the two companies are attempting different things. Blue Origin plans to use their single BE-3 engine rocket for suborbital tourism and science missions. SpaceX has nine Merlin 1D engines lifting an entire second stage and payload downrange before, eventually, turning around and boosting itself back uprange to a landing pad near the launch site.

Musk has been at odds with Bezos for years now. In 2013, Bezos contested NASA’s decision to lease Launch Complex 39A, the former space shuttle launch pad, to SpaceX. Blue Origin wanted to launch a future orbital rocket they plan on producing from the historic site and to turn the pad into a multi-user commercial spaceport. Musk retorted by saying that “unicorns would be found dancing in the flame duct” before Blue Origin was ready to fly an orbital rocket within five years. The company has since announced an orbital vehicle will launch out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 36B, though no firm time frame has been set.

Additionally, there was a dispute over a Blue Origin patent covering the landing of rockets at sea. According to GeekWire, the U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board granted a motion to cancel the claims earlier this year.

Blue Origin’s test flight comes after another test in April powered the New Shepard system to 58 miles (93 kilometers). According to NASASpaceFlight, during the propulsive landing attempt, pressure was lost in the hydraulic system and the booster failed to touch down softly.

The company aims to begin commercial flights of research payloads by the middle of 2016. Eventually, people will be sent on suborbital flights with New Shepard. The company has stated that passengers will get views of the curvature of Earth through the largest windows to ever fly in space.

“We are building Blue Origin to seed an enduring human presence in space, to help us move beyond this blue planet that is the origin of all we know, “Bezos said in a statement. “We are pursuing this vision patiently, step-by-step. Our fantastic team in Kent, Van Horn and Cape Canaveral is working hard to not just build space vehicles, but to bring closer the day when millions of people can live and work in space.”

Video courtesy of Blue Origin


Derek Richardson is a student studying mass media with an emphasis in contemporary journalism at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. He is currently the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also writes a blog, called Orbital Velocity, about the space station. His passion for space ignited when he watched space shuttle Discovery leap to space on Oct. 29, 1998. He saw his first in-person launch on July 8, 2011 when the space shuttle launched for the final time. Today, this fervor has accelerated toward orbit and shows no signs of slowing down. After dabbling in math and engineering courses in college, he soon realized that his true calling was communicating to others about space exploration and spreading that passion.

Reader Comments

This is great news. Congratulations to the Blue Origin team!

Love that this was successful – dislike that half the article was dedicated to a semantics argument between two billionaires…

wow, amazing, I’m 68 yrs old, things that I’ve seen so far!!!

If you watched the vid of New Shephard’s flight, you may have noticed a crucial difference between it and the Falcon 9. New Shephard has enough fuel reserve and engine authority to actually hover . It even appeared to maneuver around a bit before touchdown. The returning Falcon 9 only gets one shot at it , like a downward arrow, and cannot hover. F9 can only zero out the forward velocity at the exact instant to touch down. If a returning Falcon 9 has any hover or loiter time , I’m not aware of it.

New Shephard was more impressive than I thought it would be. Still, it is only sub-orbital… for now.

It’s a great accomplishment, but New Shepard is a lot smaller (shorter) than a Falcon 9, and basically just goes straight up and down.

My understanding is that a Falcon 9 engine at idle is still powerful enough to make the empty booster start to climb. If this is true, then more throttle authority on the low end would give it hover capability. Any confirmation out there?

I’m also very impressed with the speed at which it descends and then has this speed arrested so rapidly for landing. I’m curious about how many G’s it is under when it slows for landing. It would be one heck of a ride.

Yes, this has been discussed on many forums. F9 has to do “hover-slam” because Merlin can not deep throttle to below 20% range where you would need for a hover. We can guess this has a lot to do with kero being the fuel and incomplete combustion leading to excessive coking along with the usual factors turbo pump speeds, flow separation, combustion instability and the like. Remember BE-3 is a tapoff engine so no gas generator to worry about throttling down as well. Really BE-3 would be a great upper stage engine for a orbital vehicle given hydrogen, deep throttle and more modest thrust (In competition for ACES propulsion in fact). Merlin is more tuned for clustering in a booster. Kero, gas generator cycle and significantly more thrust 50%+. This makes the last 5 seconds a lot more difficult for SpaceX however the upside is they will be landing a medium lift booster stage rather than a purpose built sub-orbital booster with all kinds of air brakes and control surfaces (top and bottom) that would make Elon wince if designing a stage for competitive medium lift mission.

It is sad that Mr Musk has become such a cynic of the achievements of others. There was a time when this was not so. What has happened to him to bring this about?

That’s not fair Musk was disparaging BO years ago. There is all the usual stuff including patent dispute and jockeying for the prime real estate of pad 39A; both of which SpaceX has won. My guess, he is defending his team who has been at this a long time and with more constraints and a tougher haul.

Musk is just pointing out the obvious (to aerospace engineers anyway). And that is that a short suborbital hop to 100 km altitude is simply not in the same class as an orbital launch. Achieving orbit is what separates the big players from the small in this industry.

Tiffany O'Reilly

Actually Musk, his paid trolls and their kind are just doing what theyve always done and thats lacked class:

Compare the snarky comments in that video about their competitors needing to retire to how OA handled themselves after the SpaceX fiasco that was CRS7: Our thoughts are with the @SpaceX team. We understand getting to space is hard, but very important work. Wishing you a speedy recovery.

It just goes to show, all that money can’t buy Musk any class.

Musk pays trolls? Do you have evidence for this? SpaceX is upsetting a rather settled apple cart. To be expected SpaceX has been the target of a lot of hate (and other forms of pressure to their very existence) and no surprise that SpaceX in response may over-rotate from time to time. Whatever, all I care about is the impact they are having. ULA changed CEOs, reformed development plans for reduced cost and waxed 80% of exec staff to do it. That would not have happened without SpaceX. So for me SpaceX is win win. They do cool stuff and push competitors as well.

Tiffany O'Reilly

Like SpaceX would allow for proof of that to come to light. No, but the fact remains the same people attack the same way whenever Tesla or SpaceX is questioned. No other firm has such a consistent group constantly carrying out such attacks.
SpaceX is doing great and in fact my concern is there’ll be no good will left due to the campaign conducted on their behalf. Something they might want to consider when an accident with crew happens.

Conway Costigan

No other firm has such a consistent group constantly carrying out such attacks. SpaceX is doing great and in fact my concern is there’ll be no good will left due to the campaign conducted on their behalf.

The SpaceX trolls have contaminated almost every single popular space forum over the last 5 years. Nobody can argue that (except the SpaceX trolls). About half of these dozen or so space sites are actually just propaganda rags for SpaceX with moderators that block anyone not saying the right things.

Grand conspiracy or media does what media does? Hmmm this is a hard one. SpaceX gets eyeballs to their site so no kidding media are going to give extra coverage to SpaceX news. How is this different than any other news/media outlet? True that SpaceX brought in a whole new group of people into these forums but that is a good thing. SpaceX has made people interested in space again because they are doing the things that can make space more relevant (reduce cost). You know SpaceX has been around for longer than 5 years and I’ve seen posts going back before that time, before SpaceX really took off and all comments were disparaging to SpaceX comparing them to the historical heap of flawed space companies in the past. Fid
Watching NASA wallow in a perpetual death spiral is not inspiring. The only thing that will allow NASA to pull out of such a spiral is if they leave lift to commercial and focus on mission and deep-space payloads. This is exciting stuff. My prediction is by the mid 2020s this will be completely obvious through the entire lift range including super heavy lift.

I knew a Conway Costigan and he was the biggest SpaceX fan, hated Hydrogen/LOX propulsion and thought the moon is just a useless rock. Weird

Conway Costigan

You can’t stand it can you Ron? All those years and hundreds of hours you have spent toiling away robo-commenting others into exhaustion- and now people are waking up and calling you what you are. You have to use a false identity to do something,anything, to stop others from exposing the truth.
You are the one that is the very definition of weird.

Tiffany O'Reilly

He didn’t say outlets giving more coverage to SpaceX was bad – he said some block anyone from noting SpaceX’s issues. He also didn’t say SpaceX was around for 5 years – he said that’s how long the coordinated troll attacks have been happening (and he’s right).

While I agree what SpaceX is doing is inspiring – the fact you’d support the troll-antics we’ve all seen is sad. Even worst is you lack the courage to honestly address the issues Conway mentioned – opting to misrepresent them instead. Thanks for validating our concerns.

For the record I see anti-SpaceX trolls and real critics all the time in comments of multiple forums. So this vast conspiracy of silencing critics must be in your head.

Conway Costigan

No, it’s not in her head Chris.

Tiffany O'Reilly

Again you misrepresent what was said. No one has made any mention of a “vast conspiracy.” I’ve read the series Conway highlighted it’s disappointing just how quickly people like you “out” themselves. Whereas we highlight the troll problem – you turn to personal attacks.

Also, why didn’t you address any of the points Conway or I raised? Instead you have (three times at last count) misrepresented what we said (another troll tactic noted in that AmericaSpace series). Thanks for proving our point. Rather than address SpaceX’s problems you shoot the messenger.

If you think things were rough after CRS 7, wait until someone dies. It’s great to be a fan of SpaceX and we all should support what they’re doing. However, you aren’t winning any fans by acting the way you are Chris.

“dozen or so space sites are actually just propaganda rags for SpaceX with moderators that block anyone not saying the right things.”

This sounds like vast conspiracy to me. And as proof he provided the media exposing trolling rather than being co-opted by it (Proof for my position in fact, nice job). No one said there were no trolls in the world.

You made a specific claim that people are being paid to post comments supporting SpaceX without any proof whatsoever. Then when pressed said “Like SpaceX would allow for proof of that to come to light”. This again would fall into my short-hand of vast conspiracy.

If you want to support your position cogently without black helicopters and goofy videos, go for it.

Actually Chris that video isnt goofy or even funny its insulting. Go into 31 seconds and look at how you guys talk smack about how Orbital needs to ‘retire man.’ Fast forward to when SpaceXs rocket blew its guts out, did Orbital treat ya’ll like that? Nope. You really need to can all that nasty garbage and learn some manners.

Conway Costigan

You either graduated the school of Coastal Ron robo-commenting summa cum laude or you are Ron.

“If you want to support your position cogently without black helicopters and goofy videos, go for it.”

Classic SpaceX trolling.

Tiffany O'Reilly

You’ll forgive me for not agreeing with you. I don’t see this as a “vast conspiracy” AmericaSpace is one of the few outlets (besides this one, PopSci and a handful of others) – who have said “enough.”

Out of curiosity, why are you being so obnoxious? Why did you have to drag in “black helicopters” and all that? In your own words: “Proof for my position in fact, nice job.”

A troll, when presented with information that contradicts their opinion will resort to personal attacks rather that address the situation at hand. It’s easier to attack people for pointing out the problem than fix the actual issue. It is the tactic of the weak.

From the start, I have been honest, stating that I, of course, had no proof of this conspiracy you want to make this out to be. However, as the series Conway posted notes – the public has been aware of this for some time and NewSpace/SpaceX has been at the center of it. Here’s an idea – instead of posting snarky attacks for those that highlight the mess why don’t you pick up a metaphorical mop and try to correct it? All I’ve seen you do here – is resort to the tactics Conway, myself and others have addressed. Again, thanks for proving our points.

My original post to this article was specific to technical issues surrounding various VTOL approaches by BO/SpaceX, so my mop was swinging. My second post was to clear the record that the bad blood between Bezos and Musk goes back years so saying something recent changed wouldn’t be accurate; again mop swinging.

Expect to be ridiculed when making extravagant claims without evidence (such as Musk or anyone paid for trolling website comments). Come on you don’t see “Musk, his paid trolls” as a line that is just as trolling and snarky as what you claim to disdain? I’m out.

Tiffany O'Reilly

Actually? I expect adults not to attack people for pointing out that for some “strange” reason, the same people carry out the same attacks on ALL of the space news websites for years.
Did I attack you personally? No. Did I snark all over you as you time-and-again stooped to the tactics you did? No.
Also, I wasn’t even TALKING to you – you just decided to jump in and lash out at me and anyone who disagreed with you on a PERSONAL level.
Time and again, whenever myself or Conway said something, you’d squirm your way around it anyway you could – before resorting to ad hominem attacks.
If your only way of debating someone is to insult them you have no business commenting.

Conway Costigan

It is “robo-commenting”: endless argumentation effected by modifying others statements and filling up the page until the people being abused in this way just give up. The NewSpace crowd have done this for years and have a playbook they use that everyone who frequents these sites knows quite well.

There is also a fifth column that poses as non-partisan or bi-partisan but will always end by spoiling a dialogue on the side of NewSpace with some non-factoid or distraction.

They have been doing this for so long they just take it for granted that they own the moral high ground and are so arrogant they think nobody realizes the dirty game they are playing. “Actually”, anyone with any expertise knows exactly what they are doing.

Nicely written article Derek. Now is a great time to be getting into writing on the space industry. Best of success to you.

Bob Clark

Javier Solorzano

Blue Origin has already successfully accomplished VTVL on 11/23/15. The fact that it was a sub orbital test flight is irrelevant. It was still a fully outfitted flight successfully returning the crew capsule and first stage; the historic first time this has ever been accomplished. I’m a fan of SpaceX and when they accomplish vtvl to Earth orbit it will be an ADVANCEMENT and a great accomplishment, but vertical takeoff vertical landing has already been accomplished for the first time in a real world RealFlight scenario (just the passengers were missing) unlike SpaceX’s grasshopper tests which only went up a few hundred feet.

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