Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company owned by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, has often been compared to Elon Musk's SpaceX, and on the surface, the two companies have quite a bit in common. However, they have taken very different approaches to private spaceflight. While SpaceX has pursued the limelight, Blue Origin has operated quietly and taken things a bit more slowly.
SpaceX makes headlines with its first-stage rocket landings and reusable Falcon 9 rockets. But Blue Origin actually beat them to it. The company landed its New Shepard rocket vertically a month before SpaceX accomplished its well-publicized feat. It’s worth mentioning, though, that SpaceX was doing so during an operational orbital mission, and Blue Origin’s was during a suborbital test flight.
Blue Origin started out primarily as a space tourism company. The goal was, simply, to cater to people (let’s be real here — rich people) who wanted the ultimate vacation: a trip into space. That’s what their New Shepard (named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard) spacecraft and launch vehicle are oriented toward.
New Shepard is still in its uncrewed testing phase, which means it hasn’t sent anyone up into space. The company recently flew the ninth test flight of New Shepard, which involved testing the launch abort system of the capsule. Basically, if something goes wrong on the launch pad or during ascent, the abort motor will propel the spacecraft away from the rocket at a very high speed. The test was successful, and it takes Blue Origin another step closer to a crewed launch. The company stated that there would still be another couple of launches before that happens.
Once it finally does, Blue Origin will fly its own crew before it opens up to paid tourists. It’s still not clear how much a ticket will cost, though they’ll go on sale sometime next year. The rumored price? $200,000 to $300,000 a pop, and each capsule can hold six people. It’s a pretty unreal amount of money for what will be a 10-minute flight, but it’s about standard. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo tickets are priced at $250,000.
But space tourism isn’t Blue Origin’s only focus anymore. Not only is the company flying experiments on its New Shepard tests, but the company is building a larger, orbital rocket called New Glenn (named after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth). While it’s not expected to make its first flight until 2020, this rocket holds a lot of promise.
New Glenn will have a two- and three-stage configuration. Rockets generally work in stages in order to decrease the amount of weight being dragged up through the atmosphere. Each stage has its own propellant and engines; when the fuel for one stage is spent, it detaches from the rocket so as to minimize the amount of dead weight a rocket is having to lift. The two-stage, less powerful, configuration of New Glenn will be used for sending humans to orbit.
Right now, Boeing and SpaceX have contracts to develop crew vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. (Incidentally, both are incredibly delayed, but that’s a discussion for another day.) Once New Glenn is ready, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Blue Origin try to muscle in on some of this territory, especially as they will already likely have suborbital crewed spaceflight experience with New Shepard. Blue Origin already has secured NASA contracts for other goals.
The three-stage, more powerful version of New Glenn will be used as a heavy lift rocket. It will be a competitor for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, which had its much-publicized (by reporters like me) test launch earlier this year. This heavy-lift rocket will compete for government contracts, as well as private companies that want to put their satellites into space.
It may seem as though Blue Origin is way behind SpaceX; after all, the Falcon 9 has been successfully flying since 2010, while suborbital New Shepard has only had test flights. But the demands are different, and more stringent when you’re flying humans, which was Blue Origin’s main focus. Neither company has flown humans yet, and it’s not clear which will do so first.
But to Blue Origin, it’s not a race. The company has adopted a model of steady progress and rigorous testing over taking daring chances and risks that land them on the front page of newspapers. That’s not to criticize the way that SpaceX has done things; I’m a fan of the company and its many accomplishments, after all. But it’s worth keeping in mind that it’s not the only way to achieve progress. Blue Origin’s method might be less splashy, but it doesn’t mean anyone should count them out.