Recently, a company called Blue Origin launched a rocket called New Shepard from a test facility in west Texas. The rocket delivered a crew capsule containing a couple of microgravity experiments to an altitude of 100 kilometers, considered the edge of outer space. The rocket, using the same engine that had propelled it into space, landed close to its launch site, intact. The capsule landed nearby, using parachutes.
The fact that this flight was the third time since November 2015 that the same rocket was launched and then landed promises to change the space launch business in ways that most do not fully understand.
Traditionally, rockets that launch things and people into space are thrown away after use, falling into a nearby ocean. The expendable characteristic of rockets is one reason why space travel is so expensive. Imagine what air travel would cost if an airliner were crashed into the ocean after every flight.
Reusable spacecraft have been the holy grail of spaceflight for decades. NASA attempted to create a reusable space shuttle that flew for 30 years, from 1981 to 2011. But the space agency found out that reusability is not sufficient to bring down the cost of space travel. A reusable spacecraft has to be easy and cheap to turn around after every flight, which the shuttle was not.
Blue Origin, a company owned by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, is working on a reusable suborbital rocket to start up a space tourism business. The idea is that the New Shepard will take paying customers on suborbital jaunts, land, be turned around, and then launched and landed all over again. Blue Origin has only spent a few tens of thousands of dollars to turn around the New Shepard for reflight, as opposed to the hundreds of millions of dollars that NASA spent to fly the space shuttle. Bezos intends to launch many more space flights in 2016, followed by the first crewed flights in 2017, then regular tourist flights in 2018. Blue Origin has thus leaped to the lead of a curious space race that includes Virgin Galactic and XCOR to start the first private space tourism company. Elon Musk is attempting to make the first stage of its Falcon 9 reusable, so far to incomplete success.
An enterprise that takes the well-heeled and adventurous on suborbital barnstorming joyrides is just the beginning. Blue Origin is already designing the orbital version of the New Shepard, using a more powerful engine. The bigger rocket would be able to deliver payloads to orbit and then land back where it was launched, be refurbished, and then launched again.
As Eric Berger points out in Ars Technica, reusability and swift, inexpensive turnaround are game-changing qualities for space flight. With reusable rockets, the cost of space travel will plummet exponentially. With costs brought down, more private companies will be able to turn space flight into profit-making opportunities. Eventually, trips to orbit will be as common as airliner flights across the Atlantic or the Pacific.
The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once observed that when you get to low Earth orbit, you are halfway to anywhere in the solar system. Cheap access to space will eventually open the moon, asteroids, and even Mars to commercial development. The implications for the creation of new business opportunities, from lunar and asteroid mining to space tourism, is beyond evaluation at this time.