With both Musk and Bezos now flying robust launch vehicles, new space becomes real.
On Wednesday morning Blue Origin did something no other company, or country, has ever done before. The company launched its rocket, and 45 seconds later, instructed the capsule to fire its engine and abort the flight. The rocket subsequently emerged from a curtain of flames and continued into space, blackened but not broken. Later, both the capsule and rocket safely landed in the West Texas desert.
This particular capsule and rocket have now flown together five times in less than 11 months and passed a succession of ever more rigorous tests. After flying New Shepard twice in late 2015 and early 2016 on nominal missions, the company began pushing the envelope. In April, it held off restarting the rocket’s BE-3 engine until just 3,600 feet above the ground, six seconds before landing. The engine responded by restarting and ramping up quickly. Two months later, the company intentionally had one of the capsule’s three parachutes fail during landing, and it still made a safe touchdown. And on Wednesday, of course, the company conducted its most dramatic test of all, an in-flight abort.
After all of this the spacecraft and rocket remain intact, perhaps even ready to fly again. But enough is enough: these historic vehicles will now go to museums, perhaps to the Smithsonian. This seems appropriate given that no other launch system has survived such a succession of in-flight tests. But far more significant than their historical value is what New Shepard’s feats mean for the future of spaceflight, because it looks like Blue Origin just validated the new space movement.
For the longest time new space has been more of a philosophy than a physical reality. Organizations such as the Space Frontier Foundation have been extolling the virtues of Solar System settlement and operating independent of bureaucratic government programs since the 1980s. There were lots of great ideas and some money, but generally very little hardware actually flew in space.
A decade ago, when Elon Musk entered the space business, things began to change. With equal measures of stubbornness, arrogance, and single-minded determination, Musk flew his Falcon 1, and then Falcon 9 rockets. He broke down the barriers. Yes, his company received considerable amounts of federal money, but the purpose wasn’t just to secure the next big NASA contract. Rather he sought to bootstrap the federal money toward a vision of colonization of space, beginning with Mars.
This vision contrasts with that of the traditional aerospace contractors—Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others—which generally wait for NASA to say what it wants, and then the contractors fight for those federal dollars. They will deliver a quality product, certainly, but at a high cost and generally without a sense of urgency. For new space, the vision must exist independent of government programs, beyond the NASA model of exploring with a few professional astronauts. Costs must fall, and space must become accessible for many, not a few.
Yet as much as Musk has shaken up the global launch industry, one man—or one company—does not make a movement. SpaceX has now had two accidents with its Falcon 9 rocket. With one or two more it is possible to conceive of SpaceX going out of business. So while the new space movement gained credibility from Elon Musk, its position was not secure.
Blue changes everything
Now Blue Origin seems to have changed all that. With its dramatic flight tests, the company has proven its basic design works well. Over the next couple of years, Blue Origin intends to scale the suborbital New Shepard design into an orbital rocket, New Glenn, and larger rockets still. Significantly, the sooty rocket that landed in West Texas proves that Blue Origin has an incredibly robust design.
The company has been largely quiet until now, but founder Jeff Bezos could afford to act slowly and stealthily—space wasn’t his primary business, merely a passion. Now that the company has had some success, Bezos is warming to sharing his baby with the public.
This heretofore silent approach belies the fact that Bezos is a true believer in new space. Not only does he want to see millions of people living in space, he operates independently of the US government and has even openly spurned NASA’s approach. Last November, after the initial successful landing of the New Shepard capsule, I asked him about his philosophy toward total reusability in contrast to NASA’s approach of continuing to build large, expendable rockets just like during the Apollo era. He seemed almost incredulous in his response.
“The holy grail of rocketry is full reusability,” Bezos replied. He then spoke of Wernher von Braun, the German rocket scientist who built the deadly V-2 rocket for Hitler before defecting to the United States at the end of World War II. Later, von Braun would design the Saturn V rocket that blasted Neil and Buzz to the Moon. The German would be shocked, Bezos said, that NASA is still flying essentially the same hardware he designed in the 1960s.
“If von Braun came back from the dead and looked around at our current fleet of rockets he would recognize them all,” Bezos said. “He’d say ‘Oh, you’re still throwing them in the ocean. I thought by now you’d be reusing them.’”
This is essentially the core new space philosophy—there must be a better way.
Nearly three decades after its founding, the Space Frontier Foundation remains committed to the principles of new space. One of the organization’s co-founders, James Muncy, said Blue Origin’s accomplishments during the last 11 months are truly significant. “Blue Origin shows that new space is not just about one guy or one company,” Muncy said. “We’re an industry. And we’re growing in capability and breadth and support every day.”
The experience, revealed
The commentators for Blue Origin’s webcast found themselves with some extra time to kill Wednesday morning when an unexplained hold occurred about two minutes before the initial launch time. Ariane Cornell, who works for the company’s strategy and business development team, used that time to provide some details about the experience “astronauts” will have when they begin flying Blue Origin’s suborbital flights, possibly as early as 2018.
Two days before the flight, participants would fly into Van Horn, Texas, population 1,930. After meeting the Blue Origin team and their crew mates, they would go to bed. The day before flight would involve “intense training,” Cornell said, including ingress and egress, emergency exercises, as well as “zero-G etiquette,” so that passengers aren’t flailing around too much to enjoy the flight. Launch day would begin early, and the flight itself would last 11 minutes, including four minutes of weightlessness in space, and 5 Gs during the descent.
For the first time, the company also appeared to confirm that its New Glenn rocket would offer orbital space tourism opportunities in addition to delivering satellites and other payloads into space. “We’re going to make sure that all astronauts who fly on New Shepard are going to get first access to tickets on New Glenn, which is going to be our orbital vehicle, which we hope to have flying by the end of this decade,” Cornell said.
That would be some experience indeed. Wednesday morning’s launch was powered by a single BE-3 engine, with 110,000 pounds of thrust. The much, much larger New Glenn rocket will have seven BE-4 engines, each with a thrust of 550,000 pounds. This next-generation rocket, therefore, would have 35 times the thrust of the New Shepard vehicle that launched this week. If such is the future of new space, it is a bright one indeed.
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