Has Blue Origin Succeeded Where SpaceX Failed?
Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, Inc. fame, has launched a rocket that has reached space, and then returned to Earth, successfully landing vertically. Elon Musk, of SpaceX fame, may have watched the scene, captured on video blue with envy, because his company has been trying to achieve a similar feat. (Source: “Historic Rocket Landing,” Blue Origin, November 24, 2015.)
Indeed, Bezos’ Blue Origin has succeeded where Elon Musk has failed. For years now, Musk’s SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) has tried to return its “Falcon 9” rockets to Earth intact, in order to achieve the all-important reusability aspect of his program. However, not all is what it seems, so as tempting as it might be to make a comparison, there are important factors to consider, which will help Elon Musk sleep better over the next few days.
Blue Origin Should Be Proud
It would be unfair to suggest in any way that Blue Origin has beaten SpaceX in the contest to determine which vector will conquer the next phase of space exploration.
Bezos’ “New Shepard” did go to space, in the United States Air Force (USAF) definition of “space” (that is, achieving an altitude higher than 50 miles), rising just over a quarter-mile above the Earth’s atmosphere, a distance of about 60 miles from the surface of the Earth, and doing so only in a vertical sense. In other words, the rocket took off vertically, reached a ceiling of about 60 miles, and then promptly descended, still vertical, landing safely near its launch site in Texas.
New Shepard did not orbit around the earth or fly in the stratosphere. Blue Origin’s rocket did not perform any of the functions for which rockets are used, such as transporting payload, releasing satellites, or shepherding astronauts to space. In order to do any of those things, a rocket has to climb above the atmosphere and achieve a horizontal vector, traveling at some Mach 20, which is where much of the fuel burn occurs, leaving little left to perform a successful landing maneuver.
Therefore, Blue Origin’s flight has so far achieved vertical takeoff and landing, which is significant, but it has not proven it can fulfill the parameters of an actual NASA mission. Reaching space and then hanging around for a while, in order to perform valuable and profitable tasks, will require more powerful and complex rockets.
As a comparison, the engine powering Blue Origin’s New Shepard deliver 490 kilonewtons (KN) of thrust, while SpaceX’s rockets are capable of producing 8,400 KN of thrust. Elon Musk might also point out that SpaceX failed to land its rocket successfully, but the failure occurred after the Falcon delivered payload to the International Space Station. Blue Origin has not yet achieved anything similar.
Depending on how well Elon Musk remembers the history of aerospace technology, he may also point out that the North American “X-15,” a rocket-engine-powered “airplane” with a real person, Joe Walker, at the controls was launched from a “B-52” in flight, achieving a speed of Mach 6.7 in July of 1963. The X-15 climbed above the atmosphere, flew 65 miles above the Earth, and then glided back to Earth, landing on a runway like a regular airplane. The same aircraft repeated the mission a month later.
Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Virgin Media’s Richard Branson, reached the edge of space on multiple occasions, starting in 2004. Elon Musk promptly pointed this out, even if he forgot to praise Blue Origin for having achieved the same results as Virgin Galactic or the X-15 without the need for an auxiliary aircraft or “mother ship.” Blue Origin’s Shepard’s successful vertical landing is a higher technical achievement in that sense.
Whereas, Jeff Bezos’ space rocket has not achieved as much as Elon Musk’s SpaceX in actual space mission terms, it has fulfilled all the parameters of its mission successfully. Bezos intends to use New Shepard as a test rocket and as a rocket that regular people (okay, maybe rich regular people) can use for space tourism. New Shepard can take as many as six people above the atmosphere, allowing them to experience zero gravity in the process.
Blue Origin and the Next Generation of Rocket Engines
Blue Origin has joined the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the leading U.S. company for space launches until recently and a private entity with investments from The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin Corporation. Together, they have agreed to expand production of the “BE-4” rocket motor, which will fly on the next-generation “Vulcan.” The BE-4 is going to replace the Russian-made “RD-180.” Its development is on schedule for receipt of qualification for flight in 2017, ahead of the debut of the carrier Vulcan in 2019.
According to Tory Bruno, president and CEO of ULA, the deal will allow his company to have a reliable and innovative engine, allowing Vulcan to address the United States space exploration needs. “We’re four years away from our first flight, then we have to pass through a certification process that is appropriate to whatever degree of change that the vehicle has experienced,” said Bruno. (Source: “ULA taps Blue Origin for powerful new rocket engine,” Space Flight Now, September 17, 2014.)
The BE-4 is an engine, powered by liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquefied natural gas (LNG), that’s able to develop a thrust of 2,446 KN at sea level. There will be two BE-4s to equip the booster Vulcan ALU, thus ensuring 4,892 KN of thrust on takeoff. The development of the BE-4 engine has been ongoing for more than three years and it is being tested at a Blue Origin site in West Texas.
Meanwhile, ULA has left SpaceX’s satellites as the only USAF-certified satellites for NASA. Until May 2015, ULA enjoyed a near monopoly for launching national security satellites on behalf of the USAF. Then, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was also awarded the necessary USAF certification to launch military payloads with its Falcon 9 booster.
Here’s the Bottom Line on SpaceX
ULA cannot compete with SpaceX now because it cannot present a compliant bid for GPS III-X launch services. (Source: “ULA Skips Competitive Bid for Air Force GPS Launch Contract, Door Opens to SpaceX,” Universe Today, November 17, 2015.) This is because ULA has been forbidden to import the Russian-made RD-180 engines, which it needs until the BE-4 is ready. In 2014, Congress banned the import of the RD-180 that powers the “Atlas” first stage.
As Bruno reports, his company needs a waiver from the congressional RD-180 legislative restrictions to import more engines, preventing it from bidding and leaving SpaceX as the de-facto sole USAF-certified company. (Source: Ibid.)
Simply put, when it comes to USAF-certified satellites, SpaceX currently has the upper hand.