A rocket owned by Jeff Bezos' space company Blue Origin blasted off from Texas on Wednesday then unexpectedly landed itself intact after the crew capsule parachuted to the desert floor in a successful test of safety systems.
Blue Origin engineers had expected searing exhaust from the capsule's motor would tip over the New Shepard rocket, causing it to shut down and then crash in a massive fireball in the desert.
The successful test is an important step forward for Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin. Bezos has said by 2018 the company could start carrying paying passengers to more than 62 miles (100 km) above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the planet against the blackness of space.
The New Shepard rocket lifted off for its fifth flight at 11:37 a.m. EDT from Blue Origin's West Texas launch site, a live webcast showed.
About 45 seconds later, a capsule riding on top of the rocket separated itself while a solid-rocket motor at the base of the capsule ignited. The 1.8-second firing steered the capsule away from the booster to test an emergency escape system.
The capsule then parachuted to a soft landing on the ground. Blue Origin had said saving the capsule was the only goal of the test flight.
However, after the capsule separated, the booster righted itself in flight, then turned and headed back to earth. The booster's rockets fired, and it landed upright in the desert, as it has done four times previously.
Despite its successful return, the rocket's flying days are over. Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said at a space conference last week that if the booster survived it would be given a retirement party and put into a museum.
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Blue Origin plans to build six New Shepard vehicles. The first of them was destroyed during its debut test flight in April 2015.
The company has not yet set a price for rides. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic is selling tickets to fly on its six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo for $250,000.
Bezos said he has invested more than $500 million in Blue Origin and that he would continue to foot the company's bills "for as long as necessary."
Blue Origin is working on a larger orbital rocket, called New Glenn, that will compete against Elon Musk's SpaceX and other companies for commercial satellite launches and human space transportation services.
Unlike Musk, who wants to colonize Mars, Bezos' vision is to shift energy-intensive, heavy industry into orbit and preserve Earth for human life.