A rocket owned by Jeff Bezos' space company, Blue Origin, blasted off from Texas on Wednesday and then landed itself intact, even though engineers had expected it to crash after an important demonstration of how its unmanned crew capsule could fly away from the rocket in an emergency.
The test, which concluded with the rocket's landing and the capsule parachuting safely to the desert floor, was an important step forward for Kent, Washington-based Blue Origin by showing the passenger capsule can escape from the rocket should something go wrong during launch.
Saving the capsule was the only goal of the test; the survival of the New Shepard rocket, which was making its fifth flight, was a bonus for Blue Origin. Engineers had expected searing exhaust from the capsule's engine would tip over the rocket, causing it to shut down and crash in a massive fireball.
The New Shepard booster rocket lifted off at 11:37 a.m. EDT from Blue Origin's West Texas launch site, a live webcast showed. About 45 seconds later, the capsule separated from the rocket while a solid-rocket engine at the base of the capsule ignited. The 1.8-second firing steered the capsule away from the booster to test the emergency escape system.
After the capsule separated, the booster continued into space. Then it flew back, tail first, toward Earth. As the rocket neared the ground, its engine fired, its landing legs deployed and it touched down, 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the launch site, as it has done on its four previous flights.
"That's one hell of a booster," Bezos, the billionaire founder of retail giant Amazon, said on Twitter.
Bezos has said by 2018, Blue Origin could start carrying paying passengers to more than 62 miles (100 kilometers) above Earth, high enough to experience a few minutes of weightlessness and see the planet against the blackness of space.
Blue Origin has not yet set a price for its space trips, but a competitor, Virgin Galactic, is selling tickets to fly on its six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo for $250,000.
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.
Bezos said he has invested more than $500 million in Blue Origin and that he would continue to finance it "for as long as necessary."