Space Matter: Let's Talk about Blue Origin

Space Matter is a weekly column that delves into space science and the mechanics of spaceflight. From the latest discoveries in the universe around us to the fits and starts of rocket test flights, you’ll find analysis, discussion and an eternal optimism about space and launching ourselves into the cosmos.

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We hear a lot about SpaceX—after all, they’re making splashy headlines with their launches and first-stage rocket landings. In addition, they’re one of two companies (along with Boeing) building crew capsules to eventually ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station for NASA. But there are other space tourism/travel companies making big advancements, and one of these is Blue Origin.

Blue Origin and SpaceX have a few things in common, namely they are both led by entrepreneurs with dreams of space. Blue Origin was created by Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon.com, in 2000, two years before Elon Musk founded SpaceX. However, we’ve only been hearing about Blue Origin for the past few years. For the first decade and a half of its existence, the company had a (somewhat bizarre) policy of being very tight-lipped—no one knew what the company was up to or what their goals were because they weren’t talking to anyone.

In 2015, though, Blue Origin lifted its policy of self-imposed silence, and the media, space enthusiasts, and interested followers were able to take a close look at the company for the first time.

1-jeff bezos.jpgFounder Jeff Bezos at Mission Control (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin’s primary launch vehicle is a suborbital rocket called New Shepard (named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space), and its main mission is to ferry space tourists to and from space. During the flight, the passenger vehicle, a reusable capsule, separates from the rocket and parachutes to a (theoretically) soft landing, helped along by jets to cushion the capsule.

The capsule boasts six cushioned seats, each of which faces the outside of the spacecraft. Large windows provide a panoramic view for each passenger—Blue Origin spokespeople claim they’re the largest to ever be flown in space. This makes sense—windows are heavy, and when you’re going to space, weight is everything. It’s more important to have large windows for a tourist flight than an Apollo capsule or a space shuttle. It’s unclear whether this claim includes or excludes the International Space Station, which has a cupola for observation and scientific experiments.

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The New Shepard rocket is fully reusable (unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which only boasts reusability for the first stage—but New Shepard is only a one-stage rocket). After separating from the crew capsule, the rocket returns to its launch site, landing upright on the desert surface. It wasn’t until the middle of last year that Blue Origin took a page from SpaceX’s book and streamed a New Shepard launch and landing online (the rocket’s fourth successful test). In fact, it’s worth mentioning that it was Blue Origin and not SpaceX that landed a rocket upright for the first time; we just didn’t get to see it on our screens.

The New Shepard rocket comes in for a landing (Image credit: Blue Origin)

It’s important to note that the flight will be suborbital—New Shepard was never designed to ascend into Earth orbit. These Blue Origin tourist flights will be short, allowing passengers approximately four minutes of weightlessness, with a total flight time of around 11 minutes. In comparison, Alan Shepard’s first suborbital flight lasted about 18 minutes.

Blue Origin isn’t limiting itself to space tourism, though. Earlier this year, the company unveiled its orbital rocket, New Glenn, bringing it into direct competition with SpaceX on another front. Named after John Glenn, the rocket has two different specifications—two stage and three stage—depending on what customers are looking for from the rocket. Both have a reusable first stage; presumably, like Space X, Blue Origin is working towards a fully reusable rocket.

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New Glenn also boasts some impressive statistics when it comes to size. While smaller than NASA’s SLS (still under development, with increasing delays) and the Saturn V that took astronauts to the moon, New Glenn (both the two and three stage models) are taller than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It’s not clear what the payload capability is, though; while it’s fun to check rocket heights, what really matters is how much weight the rocket can carry to orbit. We still don’t know the precise capacity of the New Glenn three-stage rocket (the two-stage version seems to have similar lift capacity as SpaceX’s Falcon 9), but given it’s size, it’s safe to say we can expect great things from the New Glenn.

The New Shepard rocket takes off from the west Texas launch site (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin currently has a pretty aggressive (and interesting) timeline. They’re planning on manned tests of their capsule, paired with the New Shepard rocket, later in 2017; Crew Dragon’s tests (SpaceX’s vehicle) has been delayed to May of 2018. This means that Blue Origin could actually be the first U.S. company to send people into space since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2012. Tourist flights would follow in 2018.

New Glenn’s first fight is scheduled for no earlier than 2020, so we have a little bit of time before we can see what exactly its capabilities will be. In the mean time, Blue Origin is building a giant rocket manufacturing facility in Florida to build New Glenn. One thing is for sure: Jeff Bezos is serious about this space business.

Lead photo by Blue Origin
Top photo by Blue Origin CC BY SA 2.0

Swapna Krishna is a freelance writer, editor and giant space/sci-fi geek.