Blue Origin, the secretive space company created by Jeffrey P. Bezos, offered a look at its newest rocket design on Monday — and, by extension, its ambitions to make space travel more frequent and inexpensive.
Both the rocket and the ambitions appear to be big.
The rockets, named New Glenn after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, are almost as large as the Saturn V rocket that NASA used from 1966 to 1973. The two-stage version that could venture to low-Earth orbit will be 270 feet tall, and the three-stage version, which could fly outside Earth‘s orbit, will be 313 feet tall. Both will be 23 feet in diameter, packing seven BE-4 engines, which are developed by Blue Origin, and lifting off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust.
Blue Origin plans to first launch the rocket from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before the end of the decade.
“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step,” Bezos, the billionaire founder of Amazon, said in an email update.
As a private company, Blue Origin could launch wealthy tourists into space, send commercial satellites into orbit and provide the technology to send NASA back to the moon, as well as to Mars and beyond.
Perfecting the technology of reusable rockets — which the New Glenn rockets would be — could have profound implications on the cost and frequency of space travel. Imagine how much more expensive a flight from New York to London would be if airlines built a new 747 jet for each flight, throwing them away after one use. That is effectively the current model of the space industry; rockets typically crash back into Earth after exhausting their fuel, and the steep costs of travel depress how often it happens.
“Reusability is a total game-changer,” said Charles Miller, the president of NexGen Space LLC, a space and public policy consultancy. “It’s on the order of going from the sail to the steam engine, or going from the horse to the automobile.”
Blue Origin first launched its reusable New Shepard rocket from West Texas in November, sending a capsule that would eventually carry paying passengers to a height of 329,839 feet, just crossing the 100-kilometer line that is considered the beginning of outer space.
Before New Glenn was announced as the rocket’s name on Monday, Bezos, who owns The Washington Post, had referred to it as “Very Big Brother.”
The large size of New Glenn — Miller, a former senior adviser for NASA, had guessed it would be big but thought it would have five engines, not seven — suggests the company would seek to lower the price of space tourism by offering more seats on the flights, he said.
In March, Bezos said that tourists could make short trips into space, experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness, as soon as 2018 via the reusable New Shepard spacecraft. The experience would doubtlessly be reserved for the rich, at least initially, but Bezos said it would be necessary to build expertise and further develop the technology.
Though the company was registered in 2000, Bezos had not let reporters into its headquarters in Kent, Washington, until March of this year. In September 2015, Blue Origin said it would invest $200 million and create 330 jobs by leasing a launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
Miller said if the dream of inexpensive space travel were fulfilled, it would significantly affect life on Earth. In best-case scenarios, the ability to more easily launch satellites could lead to worldwide broadband internet, better weather predictions, the monitoring of carbon sources and the farming of solar energy.
For the United States, it could have national security implications, he said. The ability to destroy U.S. satellites that provide surveillance and guide missiles is a current liability, but enemies may be less likely to target them if they could be quickly replaced.
And NASA will most likely be a customer, using the New Glenn rockets for future missions.
“With this vehicle, going to Mars will become a lot easier,” Miller said.