In a Wednesday test described by the company as an “astronaut rehearsal,” Blue Origin successfully blasted a New Shepard rocket into suborbital space and then landed the vehicle back on planet Earth in an upright position.
The Wednesday afternoon test at the company’s West Texas launch site simulated how a real astronaut deployment would proceed, with the rocket lifting a crew capsule to just over the 62-mile limit delineating the beginning of space. Then, as the rocket descended, it fired its stabilizing engine and touched back down on the landing pad, facing upright on its landing struts. The capsule also tested its own re-entry procedures, deploying parachutes to slow its descent before landing in the desert.
Blue Origin streamed the entire event on its YouTube channel.
The capsule was crewed only by an anthropomorphic test dummy nicknamed “Mannequin Skywalker” and about 25,000 postcards mailed in by students, according to Space News.
Ariane Cornell, Blue Origin's director of astronaut and orbital sales, said during the webcast that the mission "is really a critical step in our march towards first human flight.”
“We’re getting so close to flying people here at Blue Origin,” Cornell added. “You can almost taste it.”
Wednesday’s test was the 15th since 2015, of which only the first crashed. The rocket’s success stands in sharp contrast to competitor SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which has yet to arrive on the ground in one piece. Although SpaceX has unmanned rockets that land upright for reuse, Starship would be its first reusable manned spacecraft to do so.
Founded in 2000, Blue Origin is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ private space flight company, which aims to send paying customers into space for either commercial or tourism purposes. The company also works with the US space and defense industries. On Monday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) announced it had selected Blue Origin to work alongside General Atomics and Lockheed Martin in developing a nuclear-powered spacecraft.
Another competitor, Virgin Galactic, recently unveiled its third suborbital space plane, the VSS Imagine, which is expected to ferry paying customers into space after blasting off from a high altitude “mothership.” Of the three, only SpaceX has transported humans into space, on board a Falcon 9 rocket.