Blue Origin Could Shatter Expectations
Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos said Blue Origin, his private space exploration company, will send astronauts to space in 2017. If all goes well, the first space tourists, traveling in groups of six, could experience a space flight by 2018. (Source: “Blue Origin aims to take passengers on suborbital space flights in 2018,” CBC, March 9, 2016.)
Blue Origin is not the only U.S. private space company. The sector has become a rather crowded space. Many billionaires, from Elon Musk with SpaceX to Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, are vying to offer the most practical reusable space exploration vehicle. While Musk has focused on satellite launches and cargo services to the International Space Station (ISS), Jeff Bezos is keen on selling space tourism. Blue Origin is set to become the first company to offer space tourism trips for ordinary citizens.
Blue Origin plans to launch up to 100 suborbital flights a year. The company’s main goal is to ensure safety. The reusable space rocket, “New Shepard,” with a capsule that houses the crew, can carry six passengers into suborbital flight. They will experience weightlessness for about 10 minutes before returning to Earth.
Blue Origin expects hundreds of people to sign up and pay to experience such a trip. As of now, the company is off to an excellent start.
Blue Origin, founded in 2000, has performed two launches. In both cases, the rocket returned to Earth successfully. Blue Origin has succeeded because the company has chosen an easier route. The rockets, including New Shepard, which made its last flight just before Christmas, do not deviate from their vertical take-off path.
Bezos’ New Shepard did go to space—insofar as the USAF definition of space is concerned, that is. That means 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). In other words, the rocket took off vertically, reached a ceiling of about 60 miles and then promptly descended—vertically—landing safely and very close to its launch site in Texas.
New Shepard did not orbit around the earth or even fly into the stratosphere. In other words, Blue Origin’s rocket did not perform any of the functions for which rockets are technically used, such as transporting payload and releasing satellites, much less shepherding astronauts to space.
Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk differ in how they plan to make space travel more affordable and reliable. Their respective Blue Origin and SpaceX companies have different technical and mission parameters, but both Bezos and Musk see space exploration as a necessary tool to ensure humanity’s survival—or at least its prosperity. The two billionaires run the companies less as businesses and more as personal projects.
For now, Blue Origin’s New Shepard 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.