Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk Square Off on Rocket Firsts


On Monday, November 23, Blue Origin successfully flew the first fully reusable rocket into space, giving the company first bragging rights.  Founder Jeff Bezos tweeted he had a rare "used rocket" -- to be more precise, he had a rocket in one piece that he can refly.  SpaceX founder and chief Elon Musk was quick to congratulate him, but quickly devolved into a set of nit-picking tweets to underline that SpaceX has been flying longer and higher.   It's fair to say both Blue Origin and SpaceX have different approaches and resumes.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle reached speeds of Mach 3.72 and an altitude of over 100 miles in its second flight, with the liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen first stage successfully separating from the unmanned crew capsule and returning to earth to successfully land vertically, popping out four spindly legs as it landed roughly 4 feet from an aim point. You can see the full flight and landing as a part of the Blue Origin infomercial on the company's website; just ignore the animation of floating crewmembers, since none were on board for this flight, nor will they be for a couple of years.

Blue Origin's next steps are to restack New Shepard, refuel it, and fly it again. That attempt is still "some number of weeks" away, says Bezos, as engineers inspect the vehicle and potentially upgrade different pieces and systems to help it fly better and more reliably. 

Commercial flights for unmanned research payloads are expected by the middle of 2016, with NASA and others planning to fly experiments onboard.  Ultimately New Shepard could carry up to six paying passengers on short hop suborbital rides in a few years, but the launch system will be put through a series of rigorous flight tests before any humans are flown.

Image via Pixabay

Musk's tweets point out there are any number of other craft that have flown in suborbital, including his company's Grasshopper testbed and the X Prize SpaceShip One.  However, Grasshopper hasn't flown as high or fast as New Shepard, while the X Prize SpaceShip One used a combination of aircraft and wings to return to earth -- not an all-rocket, propulsive landing.

SpaceX has been trying to "stick the landing" with the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket for a while, each time coming a tantalizing bit closer to putting it down in one piece on a floating barge.  But the priorities and challenges for first state Falcon 9 landing have been much higher.  Each Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral is designed to put a paying customer into orbit, needing to reach speeds of up to Mach 30 to put a satellite into geosynchronous orbit or deliver cargo to the space station. Only after the paying customer is successfully on the way to orbit does SpaceX get a crack at trying to land the first stage.

Two attempts have been made to land the Falcon 9 first stage on a floating barge, both ending in a crash.  SpaceX has more attempts planned once it resumes flight operations in December, with the ultimate goal to be able to refly the Falcon 9 first stage on a regular basis, lowering the cost of putting payload into orbit.

Strictly speaking, Blue Origin wins on a "went up vertical, landed vertical" basis.  But SpaceX has a couple billion dollars of customers on the books, so it's an apples-to-dollars comparison on the basis of scale.

The real differences between Blue Origin and SpaceX are in terms of philosophy and time in the market. SpaceX has been working on putting things into orbit since 2006, with its first successful launch occurring in 2008. It has always planned to do first stage flyback, but the priority has been to get something into orbit first for paying customers and then work towards returning the first stage.

Blue Origin started with a building-block approach to moving to orbit, working through several generations of suborbital vehicles while developing on long-lead items, such as big rocket engines and crew escape systems.  Suborbital technologies and operations flow through to Blue Origin's ultimate goal of launching satellites and people into orbit.

If all goes as planned, Blue Origin will make its first flight into orbit -- not a short suborbital  job --from Cape Canaveral by 2020.  The company is building a $200 million rocket factory in Florida to build heavy lift vehicles and has leased its own launch pad to prepare for the operation. 

Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have impressive accomplishments, but Elon should stop worrying about Bezos until Blue Origin starts winning launch contracts and that isn't going to happen within the next five years.

Edited by Kyle Piscioniere
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Contributing Editor

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