Watch Jeff Bezos' Fiery West Texas Rocket Test

So let's just say you're an astronaut, of the professional or paying tourist kind. You're sitting on top of a rocket, filled with tanks of explosive fuel and cryogenically-cooled, highly pressurized gases. This rocket, called a booster, will soon be propelling your ass at transonic speeds as it tears into space. You might be asking yourself: What if something goes wrong during liftoff?

For Jeff Bezos' company, Blue Origin, a critical test yesterday in West Texas demonstrated that their emergency escape system works as intended and that the violent procedure doesn't destroy the rocket. It also solidifies the company as another well-heeled company seeking to break into the market to launch people to the fringes of space and, by the end of the decade, into orbit. 

The company once prized secrecy but has recently become more transparent, and even streamed the test live yesterday. Bezos, a billionaire, owns a parcel of land near Van Horne where he launches his test rockets. He calls it the West Texas Launch Site, and yesterday it was the focal point of the space industry.  

The fruits of all this development in West Texas are the New Shepherd rocket and capsule. This is the fifth time this booster has taken off and landed. Unlike SpaceX's reused boosters, none have been used in actual missions. But Bezos' engineers are getting ready for what the company says will be test flights with people in 2017.

"This test will probably destroy the booster," the company said in a statement before the test. "The booster was never designed to survive an in-flight escape. The capsule escape motor will slam the booster with 70,000 pounds of off-axis force delivered by searing hot exhaust." 

During the test, the capsule streaked away from the booster as intended, its solid rocket motor blazing for two seconds. That's enough time for the capsule to get away and make a parachute landing.  
The test ended better than advertised; the booster survived. The booster used retrorockets to slow and steer it's way back to earth, where it settled down on four retractable legs. This is the fifth and final test using this launch system — and Blue Origin staff paint one turtle on the side of the rocket for each flight. The company says they want the hardware to be preserved in a museum. 

The gloom-and-doom predictions about the booster's chances may have been a clever way to modulate expectations and raise public interest. Still, the success of the landing is welcome to space watchers and, really, anyone who gets excited about spaceflight but loathes the high price tag. It's yet another sign that the era of reusable rockets — and the cheaper access to space they promise — is upon us.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo