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Commercial Space Industry Lands Rocket Upright
Commercial space has accomplished what could be a small step - but also a giant leap for the space industry. During the final quarter of this year, companies Blue Origin and SpaceX successfully landed a reusable rocket upright after launch. The ability to recycle a launched booster plays a significant role in rocket economics.
The private space company Blue Origin, headed by Jeff Bezos, landed a rocket during a suborbital mission on November 24, 2015. The rocket, named New Shepard, reached an altitude of 62 miles which is considered the “edge of space”, also called the Karman Line. Although suborbital in nature, Bezo’s team and the New Shepard rocket are said to have beat SpaceX in the race to land a rocket upright.
SpaceX came back with the claim, however, that its mission is more difficult to send payloads to the Space Station involving ten times the speed and a hundred times more energy. Then on December 21, 2015, SpaceX guided its Falcon rocket back to Cape Canaveral on a mission to deploy 11 small satellites in low-earth orbit for the company Orbcomm. The successful upright landing took place on solid ground.
Left, Blue Origin's New Shepard 1st-stage rocket booster makes an upright landing on November 24th in West Texas. Right, the Falcon 9, built by SpaceX, makes its landing on December 21st at Cape Canaveral.
Blue Origin’s successful landing came after an attempt in April when the launch succeeded but the rocket was unrecoverable due to a problem with the hydraulic system.
SpaceX has also experienced its share of malfunctions. Three earlier attempts this year were intended on a platform at sea, but each failed. The first in January crashed into the drone ship when the rocket fins stopped working. The next try in April was close to succeeding but for a minor engine malfunction which caused it to fall off its platform into the ocean, and plans for a mid-sea landing in June were totally foiled when it exploded shortly after liftoff, destroying two tons of cargo.
The trials and tribulations do pay off, according to the CEOs of the company. Unable to recover a rocket is equivalent to “discarding a 747 jet after each cross-country flight”, says Blue Origin. And, “A jumbo jet costs as much as one of our Falcon 9 rockets, but airlines don’t junk a plane after a one-way trip from LA to New York”, explains SpaceX. SpaceX rockets cost between 60 and 90 million dollars.