ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Big news this week in commercial space travel. And to tell us all about it, NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel is here. Hey, Geoff.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hey there.
SHAPIRO: What exactly happened this week?
BRUMFIEL: So yesterday afternoon, a rocket built by this company Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, took off from a field in Texas. The rocket traveled more than three times the speed of sound, got up to 62 miles above the Earth, which is technically the boundary to outer space. And then - this is the really cool part - this giant rocket stage fell back to Earth. But instead of just crashing into the ground, it fired its rockets.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET FIRING)
BRUMFIEL: So the rocket fires its engines and sort of hovers like a UFO and then gently sets down on Earth.
SHAPIRO: This was so secret people didn't even know the launch was happening. And it sounds like the big news is not the takeoff but the landing. Why is the landing so important?
BRUMFIEL: The point here is reusability. So right now, when you have one of these giant rockets taking off from Cape Canaveral, or, you know, from Kazakhstan if it's Russian, basically the rocket goes firing off into space and then the vast majority of it, the first stage, just breaks off and goes clump back down onto the ground or into the ocean.
SHAPIRO: That's Geoff making the sound of a rocket hitting the ground.
BRUMFIEL: Yeah, exactly. But if you could land that first stage, you could potentially use it again. And that's exactly what billionaire Jeff Bezos told CNN he wants to do. Here he is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JEFF BEZOS: This is the first of what will be many test flights. We're going to - over the next couple of years, we're going to fly this vehicle many, many times.
BRUMFIEL: And if they can fly the same rocket many, many times, they could potentially dramatically cut the cost of space travel. So space could get a whole lot cheaper.
SHAPIRO: Does this mean that in our lifetimes people will be able to take tourist trips to space affordably?
BRUMFIEL: So that's exactly what this company Blue Origin's hoping to do. So on top of this rocket that they can reuse they're going to put a capsule. And when they get up to the edge of space, the capsule's going to pop off the top of the rocket. It'll float in space for about four minutes, give people a great view and then it's going to come back down. It'll open some parachutes and land gently so it doesn't rely on this rocket landing system. If that works, then potentially, yeah, people could at least get a taste of space. And further down the road maybe it could get cheap enough that you could actually go into orbit.
SHAPIRO: Geoff, this launch and landing was a success. Before this, there were a lot of pretty spectacular failures. So does this now mean problem solved, everybody's got it figured out?
BRUMFIEL: Well, right, I think that's a really good point. So, you know, this was a big success for Blue Origin, but earlier this year, they did have a failure where the rocket stage actually crashed. SpaceX, which is a rival company, has tried this several times. And their rocket stages have crashed and actually exploded. So I think it's important to remember this isn't a proven technology yet and we probably have a ways to go before this is going to happen.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.
BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.