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As founder Jeff Bezos emerged triumphantly from the capsule of Blue Origin’s Mission NS-16, the company’s first crewed space flight, many assertions were at once validated, including the notion that not only is reusable rocket technology here to stay, but without it, the future of space travel would be clouded with doubt and uncertainty. 

According to Blue Origin, nearly 99% of the physical parts of its New Shepard rocket, including the capsule, booster, landing gear, and parachutes, are reusable, and its stated goal is to reuse the same space vehicle hardware up to 25 times.

While SpaceX and its workhouse vehicle Falcon 9 continue to make headlines with their prolific launch productivity in recent years, the New Shepard was actually the first rocket to be reused for a subsequent space flight. How did Blue Origin accomplish this feat before its rivals? Read on to learn the answers.

Are Blue Origin Rockets Reusable

It is safe to say that the reusability of rockets is not only one of the founding principles of Blue Origin, but also a fundamental necessity for the sustainability of space travel in the eyes of private industry. As one of the costliest components of launch technology for space vehicles, rockets have typically been considered the consumable part of the equation, but as recent events have shown, this is no longer the case.

Jeff Bezos, the billionaire founder of Blue Origin, has described the reusable rocket as the “rarest of beasts”, and upon the successful earth landing of a New Shepard test rocket that had reached the Kármán Line, proudly stated: “Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore.”

Rocket Reusability is Part of Blue Origin’s Mission Statement

All it takes is a few moments perusing through Blue Origin’s website to recognize that the reusability of rockets is one of its core, founding principles from several perspectives. These beliefs can be summarized thusly:

  • Operational reusability – the successful reuse of rockets is viewed by Blue Origin as being the key to its mission to make space travel more cost-effective (and presumably, profitable)
  • High asset utilization – both the New Shepard and New Glenn (still in its testing phase) rocket platforms have been engineered with reusability in mind, as exemplified by their vertical take-off and vertical landing architecture, which enable vehicles to be reused up to 25 times with relatively low turnaround costs
  • Protecting earth’s resources – one of Blue Origin’s stated objectives for its space program is to preserve the earth’s diminishing resources by transferring human activity (e.g., living and working) into space 
  • Make space more accessible – the reusability of rockets will drive the cost of space travel down to the point where it is more accessible for those who desire to experience it

Blue Origin and its outspoken founder have not shied away from making bold proclamations but like Amazon orders, they are being delivered, one goal at a time.

How Does Blue Origin Reuse its New Shepard Rocket

In the years since its maiden test flight, Blue Origin’s New Shepard program has flown over a dozen test flights as well as two crewed missions, the first of which had Bezos himself on board and the second of which featured the 90-year-old actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame among its jubilant passengers. If there is one thing that all of these flights have demonstrated, it is that New Shepard can stick the landing

Here’s how:

  • With a return flight to earth in mind, New Shepard features ring and wedge fins that provide aerodynamic stability on its downward trajectory while also enhancing fuel efficiency 
  • Drag brakes not only reduce the New Shepard booster’s reentry speed by roughly 50% but also eliminate the need to fire the booster rocket to achieve the same result
  • The BE-3 rocket is New Shepard’s propulsion system for reaching space but can also produce a highly controlled burn (down to a speed of just 5 mph) to guide the rocket back to its landing pad on earth with tremendous accuracy
  • New Shepard’s aft fins guide the vehicle’s trajectory toward space on its ascent and also steady the spacecraft on its return journey back to earth
  • Just prior to touchdown as the vehicle slows to a mere 5 mph, four landing gear struts deploy to stabilize the New Shepard rocket on the ground
  • According to Blue Origin, roughly 99% of New Shepard’s dry mass is reused and this includes the booster, capsule, ring fin, engine, landing gear, and even the parachutes

Rocket reusability has been a bona fide game-changer not just for Blue Origin but also for all private companies (like rival SpaceX) in the private space exploration arena. What remains to be seen is whether the same proven architecture for reusing rockets can be applied to larger, more powerful vehicles.

Will Blue Origin’s Newer Generation Rockets be Reusable

Blue Origin’s two recent crewed space flights have garnered much publicity but attention is already turning to the company’s next rocket platform which will propel its operations into orbital space where it will presumably give SpaceX stiffer competition for lucrative space-related contracts.

The New Glenn rocket program will be Blue Origin’s entry into the orbital space arena. And like New Shepard, it will feature a reusable booster. But unlike New Shepard, which is a single-stage vehicle, New Glenn will be a 2-stage rocket and it appears that for the time being, only the 1st stage booster will be reusable, and the 2nd stage will be expendable. 

But plans are already underway to eventually reuse the 2nd stage as well.

Final Thoughts

If Jeff Bezos has his way, Blue Origin will continue to live up to the words “LAUNCH.LAND.REPEAT.” and this phrase will serve as far more than just a slick corporate tagline or social media hashtag; they will be the company’s identity and words to live by, now, and in the future.