The race for space

The Washington Post

It’s been around for 15 years, but Blue Origin was still the quiet little space company no one had ever heard about. And then, just like that, it suddenly made a huge breakthrough on Monday, pulling off what its founder, Jeff Bezos, called the “holy grail” of space flight: launching an unmanned rocket to the boundary of space and then successfully bringing it home to a safe landing.
The feat was celebrated because it was, let’s face it, really cool: here came a falling rocket that had to withstand 119 mph high altitude crosswinds, locate its landing site, and then fire its engine to slow itself down until it touched down in a cloud of fire and smoke.
But it also drew widespread attention because if Bezos (the founder of and the owner The Washington Post) and others can figure out how to repeatedly land and reuse the booster stage of their rockets, they’ve figured out how to slash the now prohibitively high cost of space flight. That's a key step in opening up space to the masses, some argue. At the very least, it'd be a dramatic disruption of the current business model, where rocket boosters burn up at reentry or are ditched into the ocean. It's as if airplanes were thrown away after they were used once, both Bezos and Musk have said.
“Rockets have always been expendable,” Bezos wrote in a statement. “Not anymore." He even tweeted about it in his first and only tweet:
Elon Musk, a fellow tech billionaire-space enthusiast, congratulated Blue Origin's accomplishment. But he also jabbed at a peer and a rival he seems to enjoy antagonizing.
In a series of tweets, the always blunt Musk sought to clarify Blue Origin's accomplishment and place it in perspective.
As Musk pointed out on twitter, his company did indeed launch several test rockets as early as 2013 and then bring them back safely smack dab on the launch pad. You can check one of those here:
But the highest any of those rockets went was 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet. Bezos’ rocket hit an apogee of 329,000 feet (the capsule went slightly higher after separation). That's more than 62 miles, just past the boundary of space and back to the pad. And that's a first for the history books.
While Blue Origin’s New Shepard may have made it to space, it just barely made it. And Musk wanted to make it clear that getting to space is not nearly as difficult as getting to orbit.
Orbital flight requires a bigger, faster rocket, one that’s much harder to land—“like trying to balance a rubber broomstick on your hand in the middle of a windstorm,” Musk has said. But it’s that kind of landing that he is currently chasing. SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets are used to launch satellites into orbit (not just space, mind you) and take cargo to the International Space Station (the orbiting lab). Twice this year SpaceX attempted landings of its own, on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean that Musk calls an autonomous spaceport drone ship.
Twice the craft hit the barge, crashed and blew up--a mishap that Musk called a "rapid unscheduled disassembly." Still, the boosters hit an apogee of 130 km, or 80 miles, before they started their descent. In other words, they flew deeper into space than New Shepard’s suborbital launch. The company also performed a "landing" over water in 2014, where the rocket hovered for a few seconds before tipping over.
On Tuesday, Musk hinted that the company’s next landing attempt, which could come as early as next month, may be on land—not on the drone ship in the ocean. The company is so confident in its ability to routinely stick the landings, it is building a landing pad at Cape Canaveral, not far from the launch complex it has taken over at the Kennedy Space Center.
Musk and Bezos agree that using the rocket’s propulsion to land is the way to go—as opposed to the Space Shuttle’s runway landings. That’s because both have ambitions for deep space missions, which would require different capabilities.
Musk’s goal is to colonize Mars. He’s taken note that there are “no runways on Mars,” as he said at a forum at MIT. “You really have to get good at propulsive landing if you want to go somewhere other than Earth."
And so here's an artist's concept of what landing SpaceX's Dragon capsule would look like landing on Mars.