On Saturday private launch vehicle company Blue Origin launched its New Shepard rocket and capsule. The capsule released from the main rocket and reached an apogee of 64.2 miles before safely parachuting back to Earth. The rocket plummeted toward the ground before reigniting its engine just 3600 feet above the landing pad. It landed safely and is ready for another flight. What made the mission that much more special was that it was the third time that particular vehicle was launched and landed. Blue Origin seems to have gotten the whole rocket landing thing down pat.
Of equal note was the successful launch and landing of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. The rocket lofted cargo and an experimental inflatable habitation module to the International Space Station (ISS) before returning to land on a barge at sea off the coast of Florida.
Why are the Landings Important?
It is expensive to launch stuff into space, primarily because most of the weight of the launch is taken up by the rocket and fuel, both of which traditionally are used up each flight. Even the Space Shuttle, which salvaged its solid rocket boosters, had to discard its external tank each flight. Both the New Shepard and Falcon 9 land the rockets and reuse them, dramatically lowering the cost of each mission. By doing so, “routine” access to space becomes ever closer.
What are the Differences Between New Shepard and Falcon 9?
Falcon 9 is a full on orbital launch vehicle, meaning it can take payloads into low Earth orbit (LEO). New Shepard is suborbital – it can’t take its payloads to the velocity necessary to escape Earth’s atmosphere. As such, the Falcon 9 is more capable of traditional missions like cargo and personnel transport, while New Shepard will be better as an experimental and space tourism platform. While the sample size is low on the number of launches for both, Blue Origin’s spacecraft does seem to be more successful at the landing component.