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In the aftermath of the space shuttle program coming to an end without a viable replacement launch platform in place, NASA and its space program were in a bind. But following a period of uncertainty, the space industry has been revitalized thanks largely to the efforts of private firms including Blue Origin, whose New Shepard spacecraft has demonstrated, among other things, that rockets can be reused.

For rockets to be reused they must be recovered after space flight and in New Shepard’s case, both the rocket booster and crew capsule return to earth autonomously. The capsule floats gently back via parachutes while the rocket’s descent is halted to a mere 5 mph by its engine just before touchdown.

The fact that a technologically advanced piece of space hardware like a rocket can be returned to earth and reused on a subsequent mission is incredible. That Blue Origin can accomplish this operation without human pilots or ground control is mind-boggling. How is this amazing feat possible? Read on for an in-depth look at how New Shepard lands following a mission to space.

An In-Depth Look at How New Shepard Lands

The pursuit of a rocket capable of being used, recovered, and subsequently re-launched for another mission was the inspiration shared by private space firms like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic. A reusable rocket was the white whale that promised to make space travel commercially viable, and for commercial enterprises, highly profitable.

Contrary to popular belief, it was actually Blue Origin’s New Shepard (and not SpaceX’s Falcon 9) that first successfully accomplished the trifecta of launching a rocket into space, landing the booster back on earth, and re-launching the same vehicle for a subsequent mission. It is therefore fitting that this article takes a closer look at how New Shepard lands.

It should be noted that there are actually two distinct phases of a New Shepard landing because of the separation stage that occurs as the spacecraft approaches the mission’s apogee (e.g., its highest point): its rocket booster and the crew capsule. Read on to learn how the booster and capsule landings work and how they differ.

The Rocket Booster Landing

As recent accomplishments have firmly established, the age of reusable rockets has arrived and the future of the space industry as a whole is about to take off like never before. The rocket booster can be the costliest aspect of a space mission and reusing it not only saves significant financial resources but it also allows for a quicker turnaround for re-launch, meaning more revenue-generating missions to space.

Aside from being the first space company to successfully reuse a rocket, Blue Origin is also the only firm to utilize a fully autonomous flight system (meaning there are no pilots on board the spacecraft) and this includes landing the booster. 

This video provides an excellent play-by-play of a New Shepard rocket landing, the particulars of which can be summarized thusly (the descent starts around the 55:45 mark):

  • Once the apogee has been reached, the capsule and rocket booster begin their descent (they have already separated prior to this point)
  • Because the rocket booster has better aerodynamic features than the capsule, it descends at a faster rate and will therefore be the first to land
  • Wedge fins on the forward portion (near the top) of the rocket booster (they are housed in the ring fin) deploy during the phase of descent known as the atmospheric pierce point and they will serve to guide it through the atmosphere
  • At this point during its journey home, the rocket booster is traveling at a speed exceeding 2,600 mph
  • At approximately 50,000 feet above the landing pad, the drag brake on the rocket booster deploys and the speed dramatically decreases
  • Shortly afterward, the rocket booster’s BE-3 engine restarts, and the vehicle rapidly decelerates
  • Less than 100 feet above the ground, the rocket booster’s landing gear deploys and the spacecraft hovers at a mere 5 mph before it safely touches down
  • (The rocket booster lands approximately 3 minutes before the capsule touches down)

As New Shepard is a completely autonomous flight system, onboard computers are responsible for making any last-second adjustments to position the rocket booster safely on the landing pad. 

The Capsule Landing

While New Shepard’s rocket booster landing might garner more attention for its impressive display of autonomous technology, it is the capsule landing that has the greatest significance, for the lives of the capsule’s occupants depend on its safe return to earth.

With no pilot on board (nor any flight controls in the cabin for that matter), the success of a New Shepard capsule landing is entirely controlled by onboard computers. From the moment the capsule begins to descend back to earth after reaching the apogee, this is the timeline of events leading up to a safe landing:

  • After experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness, all passengers must return to their seats and strap themselves in for the descent back to earth
  • Parachutes are automatically deployed to slow the capsules rate of speed as it approaches solid ground
  • Moments prior to touchdown, thrusters on the capsule will fire, slowing the vehicle’s speed down to a mere one mile per hour
  • To further soften the landing, the seats inside the capsule are specially engineered to absorb impact upon touching down

While there is no denying that hurtling back toward solid ground from an altitude of over 60 miles (100 km) must be a  thrilling experience to say the least, just about the only discomfort that New Shepard passengers will likely feel in the pressurized cabin during their descent is the sudden jerk of the three enormous parachutes deploying.


As impressive as rocket launches are to watch, a New Shepard rocket landing is truly a sight to behold, particularly considering that no human pilots or ground control are involved throughout the process. As far as its significance, with each successful landing, New Shepard along with other new-generation rockets, are together proving that the future of the space industry is in very good hands.