Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rocket Soft-Landing Achieved!

Don't be fooled: This rocket is not taking off, it is LANDING! (Cr: Blue Origin)

It's been on the minds of rocketeers since the space movies of the 1950's. Back in the day, our sci-fi movies routinely had the space travelers land by pointing their rocket engines to the ground and descending until the rocketship landed on its sturdy fins or on special landing pads. From an operator's point of view, it would make the rocket reusable and lower costs of transportation. In search of that goal, NASA (and their Air Force-influenced engineers) designed the Space Shuttle System which allowed the winged vehicle to glide to a stop on a long runway. In the 90's, NASA sponsored new designs to replace the shuttle with further winged technology, All of it was deemed too expensive, so nothing came of it. The space shuttle was determined to be too dangerous and expensive, so the government terminated the program and left our astronauts dependent on Russian cheap (relatively, of course) throw away rockets and capsules. For a moment, things looked interesting with the DC-X project which was able to land on its legs after launching, but that was abandoned.

Slow and steady wins the day, just before touchdown. (Cr: Blue Origin)

Now we are in the final stretches of a new space race, between innovative companies who are creating commercial replacements for the NASA cash-guzzling behemoths. SpaceX gained attention with its repeated attempts to land its Falcon first stage on a landing barge in the Atlantic after launching the Dragon cargo spacecraft. To date, each attempt has ended in failure but has been better and better and will definitely soon see a success. Then suddenly, without fanfare, competing entrepreneurs of Blue Origin launched their New Shephard sub-orbital rocket last April.  Now they have done it again, recording the first successful landing of a rocket which has gone into space. The New Shepard rocket blasted off from Texas on Monday morning, hurling its test capsule into a sub-orbital hop up to 100 kilometers, which then safely returned to Earth and landed via parachute.  The main stage rocket though, reached a height of 330,000 feet and then returned to Earth - by landing on its legs.
As great as this achievement is, it is still a different matter to return the stage from launching a craft into orbit. The SpaceX Falcon stage will have placed the Dragon cargo ship into space to reach a speed of 17,500 mph, which is a much higher degree of difficulty than what was achieved by Blue Origin last week. Nevertheless, it's a great step, and points to exciting things to come.

Blue Origin engineers celebrate the landing of the New Shepard stage, in the background. Cr: Blue Origin.

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