Blue Origin, the space company started by billionaire and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is finally catching up to Elon Musk’s SpaceX in the next generation rockets business.
Today, Blue Origin announced the successful flight of a rocket to the edge of space and back to earth for a landing. Currently, conventional rockets are discarded following each launch, so the ability to land and re-use rocket booster stages is a critical step in making access to space cheaper, by tens of millions of dollars.
Previously Blue Origin has been seen as something of an also-ran in the space billionaires club, with its competitive acumen demonstrated more in the patent office than on the launch pad. But a 2014 deal with United Launch Alliance to develop a new American rocket engine, the demonstration flight of its New Shepherd vehicle earlier this year, and now its successful reusable flight, show that the company has developed workable technology.
Before yesterday’s test, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been the only company to demonstrate reusable rocket booster technology with any success. The company has flown test rockets to a height of 1000 meters and landed them successfully, but attempts to land rockets that have actually taken cargo to orbit have ended in (sometimes spectacular) failures. However, SpaceX’s rockets are larger and fly significantly further into space, carrying heavier cargo.
And it seems that Musk has noticed, responding to Bezos’ tweet about the operation with a bit of been-there-done-that attitude.
The term “suborbital” matters here because, while the 100 kilometer line reached by Blue Origin’s New Shepherd is the traditional boundary for the ‘edge of space,’ there’s not much going on there. The lowest satellites fly around 180 kilometers above the earth, while the International Space Station sits around 400 kilometers. When SpaceX brings cargo to ISS or launches satellites, its rockets need to be much faster and carry significantly more heat-shielding than New Shepherd, increasing the complexity of reusability.
Blue Origin’s goal with New Shepherd is to get a space tourism business going; you can sign up for info here if you like.
But space tourism has proved a challenging business model for rocket companies, since most money spent on space by governments and businesses involves satellites and orbital work. Without pricing or cost information, it’s not clear yet whether Blue Origin expects tourism to be its primary function or a loss-leader to develop technology intended for partnerships with established space companies like ULA or an in-house launch business.
Another billionaire with the goal of space tourism, Richard Branson, has faced problems with the space tourism model. The vehicles developed by his company, SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, also only go to sub-orbital space, and arguably precede New Shepherd as the first reusable rockets to make it to that altitude, along with the experimental jet X-15. The dramatic failure of SpaceShipTwo last year and the death of one pilot underscore the challenges of reusable flight.
But make no mistake, this flight by Blue Origin does mark the highest-ever successful flight and return of a booster rocket stage, and will no doubt fan the competitive flames of the commercial space race.