Blue Origin takes one small step toward being a competitor to SpaceX

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Recently, Blue Origin launched its New Shepard suborbital rocket into the skies over west Texas. The flight was the 13th time a version of the New Shepard flew into space, the 12th time it was entirely successful. The flight was one more small step toward making Blue Origin a major launch company that could compete with SpaceX.

The New Shepard contained several technology experiments, including a lunar landing system that contained a lidar suite, a computer and a terrain recognition system as well as a heat shield that could be used on the upcoming orbital New Glenn rocket. The spacecraft also contained several experiments that, according to the Verge, included a microgravity aquatic garden and a prototype system for asteroid mining. The capsule carried numerous postcards created by school children imagining what a space future might be like. The flight flew to an altitude of 66 miles and took just over 10 minutes.

One payload that the New Shepard did not carry was people. The spacecraft was originally envisioned as being a capsule that would take the well-heeled and adventurous past the edge of space, to briefly experience microgravity and a magnificent view of the Earth before landing again. The first launch of a New Shepard with passengers is currently envisioned for 2021.

Besides New Shepard, Blue Origin has two projects that, when brought to fruition, may make it a competitor to SpaceX, currently the most famous and likely most profitable entrepreneurial space launch company.

New Glenn is a planned two-stage launch vehicle, said to have capabilities that are comparable to the Falcon Heavy and the Delta IV Heavy. Development of the heavy lift launch vehicle has been funded by Blue Origin CEO Jeff Bezos, as well as the United States Air Force and the United States Space Force. The first stage will be reusable, so it will have to operate much like the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy first stage, in that it will return to Earth and land vertically. New Glenn is aimed at commercial, military and NASA markets. Currently, the first flight is scheduled for 2021.

The Blue Moon lunar lander has a cargo and a crew variant, the latter of which is Blue Origin’s entree into the Human Landing System competition. The lunar lander is a three-stage vehicle, consisting of a transfer stage, a descent stage and an ascent stage that could put both cargo and astronauts on the lunar surface. Blue Moon has received some NASA funding and, if it makes the further cut, will receive more. The lunar lander may become the vehicle that astronauts use to land on the moon as early as 2024.

Blue Origin is also considering getting into the commercial space station business. NASA has suggested that when the International Space Station (ISS) reaches the end of its useful life, it would like to be a customer of commercial space stations, creating a new industry in low Earth orbit.

Bezos is starting his version of SpaceX’s Starlink, a satellite internet system dubbed Kuiper, under the Amazon corporate structure, the plan for which was recently approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

SpaceX is not the only commercial space company around, but it is the one that garners the most media attention and popular excitement. The company’s development of a new spacecraft, known as Starship, in Boca Chica, Texas, has especially caught peoples’ attention. Elon Musk’s ambitions for Starship include its use as a transport to build a city on Mars.

Bezos certainly has the deep pockets to make Blue Origin a peer competitor of SpaceX. Money buys engineering talent and everything else needed to create rockets. If the New Glenn and the Blue Moon can perform, Musk will have to look over his shoulder at Blue Origin coming up on his six, as they say in the military.

The idea that competition is a good thing in a capitalist system is something that has been understood as far back as Adam Smith in the 18th century. One well-funded space launch company has captured the world’s imagination, pioneering rocket reusability and creating the first privately developed heavy lift vehicle. Two such companies, competing for the same customers, creating new space-based business lines, spurring one another on to innovate and cut costs, has the potential to change human civilization for the better. 

Blue Origin vs SpaceX would be an open-ended space race that could help take humanity across the Solar System and, ultimately, to the stars.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Adam Smith Blue Moon Blue Origin commercial space travel Elon Musk Jeff Bezos lunar landing New Shepard Project Kuiper Rocket launch Space exploration space shuttle Space travel SpaceX

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