“The Falcon Has Landed”

Last night at 8:29pm ET, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket leapt off the launch pad at Cape Canaveral, Florida in a mission to put 11 communications satellites in orbit for Orbcomm. It was SpaceX’s first mission since June, when a cargo mission to the International Space Station went south after a strut in the second stage of the rocket failed.

Last night, the rocket performed its primary mission in putting the satellites into orbit flawlessly, marking the company’s return to flight and the resumption of its space launch services for NASA and others.

But what happened next was unprecedented.

After it’s primary mission was done, the first stage of the rocket turned around, relit three of its 9 Merlin engines, and descended back to the Cape on a point of flame. There, about ten minutes after launch, it touched down on a specially prepared landing pad, and then awaited its handlers quietly puffing steam in the darkness.

Already the most cost-effective means of getting things into orbit, SpaceX has now set a new standard for space launch technology. It’s the standard to which all of its competitors will have to conform if they are to remain in business. That’s because throw-away rockets can never be as affordable as reusable ones—no more than single-use cars or airplanes could compete in the marketplace.

Yesterday’s flight differed from last month’s vertical takeoff/vertical landing by Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket in two important ways. First, SpaceX’s rocket is an orbital ship that travels much higher and much faster than Blue’s rocket. Second, the Falcon 9 is an operational vehicle serving customers for well-established markets. The New Shepard is an experimental ship going after a market, suborbital tourism, that is not yet established. To be sure, Blue plans to scale up to orbital flight, but SpaceX got there first.

We have now entered a new era in spaceflight, one that will be forever defined as “before” and “after” yesterday’s flight by SpaceX. The iPhone of rockets has launched. As an engineer pronounced on the flight loop after touchdown, in a homage to Neil Armstrong’s words after setting his lunar module down on the surface of the moon, “The Falcon has landed.”

Blue Origin reaches space in a reusable vehicle

Yesterday at Blue Origin’s West Texas proving grounds, the company’s New Shepard spacecraft launched to an altitude of 329,839 feet, almost 2,000 feet past the international accepted boundary of space, and returned to Earth to complete a “flawless mission,” in the words of company founder Jeff Bezos in a press release that I received early this morning.

This is the first time that a reusable spaceship designed to carry humans has reached space since 2004, when SpaceShipOne proved that manned flight by a privately built vehicle is possible.

Bezos, who also runs online retail and cloud computing giant Amazon, eschews the publicity sought by his main rival in the private suborbital space race, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. Instead, he prefers to announce only major successes on the way toward his vision for manned spaceflight, and he rarely grants interviews.

New Shepard is an autonomous, single stage rocket fueled by a single Blue Origin-designed-and-built BE-3 liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel engine.

Following yesterday’s launch, which took place at 11:21 a.m. Central Time, according to the press release, New Shepard rocketed to high altitude at 3.72 times the speed of sound carrying a crew capsule, which was unmanned for the test.

blueorigin_landingAfter separating from the rocket, the crew capsule coasted to an apogee of 329,839 feet, half a kilometer past the 100-kilometer Karman line that marks the generally-accepted boundary of space. After a flight through space, during which any astronauts on board would have experienced a few minutes of microgravity, the capsule reentered the atmosphere. At 20,045 feet, the capsule deployed a trio of parachutes to make a gentle landing on the desert floor below.

Meanwhile, the booster rocket fell Earthward in controlled flight enabled by eight drag brakes and hydraulically actuated steering fins, according to a blog post by Bezos.

The rocket reignited its engine at 4,896 feet and touched down just a few feet from the center of a landing pad on the ground.

03_bo_landing_download“Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket,” said Bezos in the press release. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”

He’s right, and now Blue Origin has the only reusable suborbital vehicle in the world capable of carrying astronauts to space.

The ship’s first mission will be to fly paying passengers into the black sky of space for views of the curvature of the Earth and the thin blue line of the atmosphere and the experience of weightlessness that Virgin Galactic has been promising for 11 years now.

Virgin hired SpaceShipOne’s builder, Scaled Composites, to build an eight-seat version of the original three-seat craft, which now hangs beside the Spirit of St. Louis in the most-visited museum on the world, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

Unfortunately, the hybrid solid/liquid rocket motor chosen by SpaceShipOne’s designer, Burt Rutan, did not scale up well to the larger vehicle, which still has not succeeded in reaching space.

On October 31, 2014, SpaceShipTwo suffered a catastrophic breakup during a powered test flight launched from its home airport in Mojave, California, taking the life of the pilot and injuring the co-pilot, who became the first person to successfully bail out of a moving spaceship. A second SpaceShipTwo is still under construction.

Until recently, my money was on rival company XCOR Aerospace and its own suborbital spaceplane called the Lynx, for getting the first paying passengers into suborbital space. However, earlier this month, that company suffered the departure of three of its four founders and main visionaries. I haven’t yet heard why they left, but their departure, which I heard about from a source inside the company, would seem to be a blow to the company and its plans for human spaceflight. The Lynx, too,  is still under construction.

That leaves Blue Origin, with its first successful flight to space behind it, number one on the runway for offering the first flights to suborbital space for those who can pay their own way.

The Blue Origin website describes the spaceflight experience that the company will soon offer. It doesn’t quote a price or give a date for the first manned flights of the six-seat vehicle.

Bezos’s ambitions for Blue Origin are much loftier—ultimately to enable the settlement of space, as this Blue Origin promotional video implies.

Photos and video courtesy of Blue Origin.



Getting-closer-to-human prosthetics

When I wrote about DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in Popular Science back in 2007, the editors, without running it by me first, called it out on the cover with a headline that sold the project as creating a “bionic arm that’s better than human.”

The researchers in charge of the project at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab (APL) weren’t too happy about that.  They had impressed upon me that they most emphatically were not creating the Bionic Man with superhuman abilities. They just wanted restore as much of a disabled person’s abilities as possible—with a robotic arm wired directly to a user’s brain.

Cut to 2015, and the project is even closer to its goal. This year, DARPA announced that the program had succeeded in imparting the arm developed at APL with feeling.

I got a chance to run an update on the project, this time for Popular Mechanics online, and for Bloomberg Businessweek. Both stories were published last month.

Last week I paid a visit to the Bloomberg offices in New York City to tape an on-camera interview to give more of my thoughts on what’s next for the program (it’s winding down) and for prosthetics and robotics and general (they’ll soon be everywhere).

That hasn’t been released yet, but in the meantime, you can check out my Businessweek story on the Bloomberg Business website: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-10-08/a-prosthetic-arm-that-gives-amputees-the-sense-of-touch.

And my Popular Mechanics story on popularmechanics.com: http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/health/a17702/brain-controlled-prostheses-is-closer-than-you-think/.

No, “getting closer to human” doesn’t have quite the zip as “better than human,” but it’s just as “awesome,” as my PopMech editor termed it in the headline for my story there.