Blue Origin's New Shepard Reaches Space...and Lands Upright

In case it wasn't clear before this week, there's a New Space Race on! Congratulations are in order this week for Billionaire Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin. They're celebrating a major success: the first VTOL spaceflight of their New Shepard rocket.

Vertical takeoff and landing is one of the methods some of the New Space Race companies are using to make their spacecraft reusable - a requirement if we ever want to reduce the costs of spaceflight to a more economical level. VTOL for rockets is no easy feat, something that Blue Origin rival SpaceX has had trouble with. Although they demonstrated a VTOL rocket years ago, their attempts to land Falcon 9 booster stages on a barge in the ocean during a real mission failed...twice.

Bezos used his first tweet ever to announce the successful flight with this video. You know the competition is becoming heated when this tweet prompted SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to reply with a tweet that tried to downplay the significance of Blue Origin's achievement.

I wouldn't have expected SpaceX to feel the need to be defensive right now. They just won a contract to fly crewed missions to the ISS on their Dragon capsule. Whether Musk's response to Bezos was in good taste or not, he does have a point. There's a big difference between taking "tourists" to space for a few minutes and flying orbital missions to the International Space Station.

That said, I feel like any advance in human spaceflight is a great thing for us. Competition breeds innovation and I'm excited to see the advances resulting from the New Space Race. Beyond Blue Origin and SpaceX, we have The Spaceship Company. This company formed as an offshoot of Scaled Composites after SpaceShipOne successfully flew to space twice in 14 days, winning the famed Ansari X-Prize. They're now building a larger spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo for Billionaire Richard Branson's company, Virgin Galactic. Like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic is currently focused on suborbital space tourism. It may not be as glamorous as orbital spaceflight, but they've had several hundred future astronauts shell out $250,000 to reserve a seat.

The design of Scaled's spacecraft makes a lot of sense and some people are hoping it's scalable...uh yeah. As a result, Billionaire Paul Allen has started a company called Stratolaunch Systems and hired Scaled Composites to help him build an enormous carrier aircraft that will launch rockets from high altitude. When complete, it will be the largest aircraft ever.

A lesser-known company, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC,) is also working on a reusable spacecraft called the Dream Chaser. This reusable spacecraft design is based on the lifting body concept explored by NASA in the 60's and 70's. They have had a rough time winning a contract to use the Dream Chaser for missions to the ISS, but they haven't given up yet.

While you may not be familiar with SNC, the name Boeing should definitely ring a bell. They are the other company that NASA has contracted to fly astronaut crews to the ISS. Those crews will ride in the Crew Transport System (CST)-100.

Blue Origin's New Sheppard, SpaceX's Dragon, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, SNC's Dream Chaser, Boeing's CST-100...that's five brand-new corporate spacecraft designs, and I haven't even mentioned a couple other efforts. Not to be outdone, NASA is also designing a new capsule, called Orion, that they plan to use for missions as far as the Moon, or maybe even Mars. All of these designs are clean-sheet efforts that started in the last decade or so. Not bad!

During the first Space Race we put men on the moon and sent probes throughout our solar system. This New Space Race is looking to put men and women on Mars, asteroids, and maybe even the moons of other planets in our neighborhood. Most importantly though, it's encouraging competition and innovation to bring the costs of spaceflight down. As spaceflight gets more economical, we'll be able to fly more, take more people into space, and learn how to start reaching out and explore the stars. It's a pretty exciting time for human spaceflight. It's going to be exciting to watch our progress!