Rocket company Blue Origin pulled off a double success on Wednesday, coming a step closer to launching people into space.
The aerospace startup led by Amazon.com Inc.'s Jeff Bezos tested the escape system of its space capsule on Wednesday in remote West Texas. Forty-five seconds into the flight, the capsule popped off as if it were a Champagne cork, propelled by an escape motor mounted underneath.
Not only did the empty capsule land safely under parachutes four minutes after liftoff, the rocket managed to fly back and land upright. This was the first inflight test of the emergency escape system, designed to save lives if something goes wrong with the rocket during liftoff, and the first test of its kind in the United States since the 1960s.
Blue Origin's launch commentators called it an "epic flight" from beginning to end. Mr. Bezos had warned in advance that the booster rocket probably would end up crashing back to Earth, after being jolted by the 70,000 pounds of force exerted by the escape system. Instead, the booster made what looked to be a fine vertical touchdown seven minutes after liftoff, just a few kilometres from its launch pad.
"Wow. There it is. There you go, New Shepard. Look at her," launch commentator Ariane Cornell exclaimed once the booster landed. "What an extraordinary test and a tremendous final flight for both craft."
Mr. Bezos has said that by 2018, Blue Origin could start carrying paying passengers to more than 100 kilometres above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the planet against the blackness of space.
Blue Origin has not yet set a price for its space trips, but a competitor, Virgin Galactic, is selling tickets to fly on its six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo for $250,000 (U.S.).
Blue Origin is working on a larger orbital rocket, called New Glenn, that will compete against Elon Musk's SpaceX and other companies for commercial satellite launches and human space transportation services.
Unlike Mr. Musk, who wants to colonize Mars, Mr. Bezos's vision is to shift energy-intensive, heavy industry into orbit and preserve Earth for human life.
Mr. Bezos said he has invested more than $500-million in Blue Origin and that he would continue to finance it "for as long as necessary."
The rocket and capsule system tested are intended for suborbital flight and are called New Shepard after the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Mr. Bezos hopes to launch the first test flight with humans as early as next year, followed by tourists and other paying customers. The capsule could hold up to six people.
Blue Origin is aiming for reusability to lower launch costs. After the capsule darted away at about 640 kilometres an hour, the rocket kept going up, reaching more than 73 kilometres high, before descending to the desert floor.
This rocket has flown five times and is now bound for a museum along with the capsule. The capsule also had flown before, including a launch-pad escape test, minus a rocket, in 2012.
Based in Kent, Wash., Blue Origin has taken over a launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for future orbital flights. That newly unveiled system, still in development, is called New Glenn for the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn.
While SpaceX has landed some of its first-stage boosters at Cape Canaveral or just offshore on a floating platform – all of them used in orbital missions – it has yet to reuse any of these recovered rockets. It had hoped to do so by year's end, but an explosion on the launch pad during testing on Sept. 1 has put everything on hold. Both the SpaceX Falcon rocket and its payload, an Israeli satellite, were destroyed.
With files from Reuters