Chairman Jeff Bezos, renowned for keeping quiet about strategic goals for his fledgling space company Blue Origin LLC, on Monday reversed course by disclosing plans for a giant, reusable rocket—named after iconic 1960s astronaut John Glenn—and powerful enough to blast people as well as satellites into high-Earth orbit.
The New Glenn rocket would feature a cluster of seven main engines and stand more than 310 feet tall. If it flies by the end of the decade as intended, the largest version of the proposed booster could vault Blue Origin, based in Kent, Wash., into head-to-head commercial rivalry with Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, founded and run by another billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk.
Ultimately, Mr. Bezos suggested, derivatives of the technology being developed for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket could even propel spacecraft deep into the solar system.
The company’s smaller New Shepard booster, designed to carry a capsule with tourists into space, made history late last year by climbing to the edge of the atmosphere and then landing vertically back on the ground. Mr. Bezos, a self-described “space geek” from his teenage years who has shunned publicity and until recently avoided any connection to federal space programs, described that touchdown as “one of the greatest moments of my life.” But he stuck with his penchant for secrecy until the goal was reached and documented.
But now, in an unusually detailed email and a Twitter
posting on Monday, Mr. Bezos broke away somewhat from his own rule of keeping quiet about plans until they bear fruit. Mr. Bezos, among other things, explicitly said his planned rocket “is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space.” He added that a three-stage version and its advanced hydrogen-powered engine “is capable of flying demanding…missions” beyond the relatively low orbit of the international space station.
Signaling that he has an even more powerful rocket on the drawing board, Mr. Bezos ended the email with the same type of overarching vision about long-term space exploration that in recent years turned Mr. Musk into a global business celebrity and champion of sending spacecraft to Mars. “Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step,” Mr. Bezos said. “It won’t be the last of course.”
The material released by Mr. Bezos indicates the rocket’s anticipated size would rival the storied Saturn V, which helped the Apollo astronauts reach the moon; its engines are slated to put out less maximum thrust than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which relies on 27 main engines. That heavy-lift system was supposed to have its maiden blastoff this year, but the recent explosion of a smaller Falcon 9 rocket during ground tests has delayed that demonstration flight.
SpaceX is the first commercial or government entity that has ever returned a large spent booster from an orbital mission, and it has pulled off a number of successful landings on the ground and on a floating platform.
Coming roughly two weeks before a long-anticipated speech in which Mr. Musk is slated to spell out plans for private Mars missions, Blue Origin’s announcement was interpreted by some space experts as a subtle swipe at SpaceX’s sometimes flashy plans. Saying “our mascot is the tortoise,” Mr. Bezos said “deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps.”
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