The Race: Competition Between Blue Origin and SpaceX

Jeff Bezos in front of a Blue Origin rocket (Blue Origin)

Jeff Bezos has an ambitious plan to build and launch to Space the largest rockets ever “before the end of this decade” and his plans will re-ignite the age old race between his Blue Origin and Elon Musk’s SpaceX.


The New Glenn

Jeff Bezos wants to build the largest rockets. Now, he has finally provided some details – plans for building two types of rockets called “New Glenn” – one larger than the other, but both built upon the same type of rocket launcher. The company behind this is Blue Origin, the privately-owned aerospace company established in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the majority owner and chief executive officer of Blue Origin, based in Kent, Washington, tended to be secretive about its strategic plans, but this all changed with a letter published on September 12.

And there was a message on Twitter: “Blue Origin’s next step…meet New Glenn” – followed by company’s motto: Gradatim Ferociter (Latin for: Step by step ferociously).

The larger of two type of rockets is planned to almost reach the height of the gigantic Saturn-V rockets from the era of Apollo space programme back in 1960s. The Saturn-V type of rockets, which were launched 13 times without any loss of crew or payload, were 363 feet (110.6 metres) high and measured 33 feet (10.1 metres) in diameter.

Comparison of New Glenn and other rockets (Blue Origin/Jeff Bezos)

Comparison of New Glenn and other rockets (Blue Origin/Jeff Bezos)

The larger New Glenn will have height of 313 feet (or 95.4 metres) and will be built with three rocket stages. The smaller version will have height of 270 feet (or 82.3 metres), built on two rocket stages. Both will have the same booster, which will be reusable. The reusability is an important feature of modern aerospace industry, aimed at cutting costs by using modern materials and technology.

The name New Glenn was chosen to honour John Glenn, the first American to reach and stay in orbit around Earth on February 20, 1962 as a part of Project Mercury.

Astronaut John H. Glenn Jr. in front of Friendship 7 capsule in 1962 (NASA/EPA)

Both versions of New Glenn rockets are designed “to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space.” They would carry payload and humans into orbit around Earth. The larger version should have trust of 3.85 million pounds (1.746 million kilograms), enough to reach the International Space Station (ISS), for example. The larger 3-stage rocket should be able to produce a stronger thrust, possibly enough to leave the embrace of Earth’s gravity.

Back in March, Jeff Bezos announced that the current rocket New Shepard would carry humans into orbit by 2018, and now he conveyed a much bolder vision:

“We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade.”

That means, maximum two years later, and all that with just 600 employees. And the company has considerable competition in one particular field: taking tourists into Space. The competition, Virgin Galactic, also has plans to carry tourists to suborbital and, one day, for orbital flights.


The Fruitful Competition

The New Glenn rockets from Blue Origin are clearly meant to rival – and surpass – SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the new Falcon Heavy launchers. The latter is, in a nutshell, a Falcon 9 rocket with additional boosters, and is the same height of 229 feet (69.8 metres).

The Falcon Heavy is poised to have a 30% more of thrust than the larger New Glenn, or 5 million pounds (2.268 million kilograms), roughly the power needed to lift 18 jumbo jets into orbit, according to SpaceX specifications.

Falcon Heavy at a launchpad - an artist's view look into future (SpaceX)

Falcon Heavy at a launchpad – an artist’s view look into future (SpaceX)

The Space Exploration Technologies Corp., better known as SpaceX, established in 2002, is the most important and direct rival to Blue Origin. It is founded and run by the Tesla Motors’ chief executive Elon Musk, with proclaimed goal to reach Mars in the foreseeable future. It has already won and successfully carried a number of contracts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to launch and take material to the ISS.

It is somewhat of a personal clash between the two billionaires and entrepreneurs – Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk – but this competition between them has yielded good results and advances in technology. Both companies build their success on their own prior work, innovations and often incremental, slow but meaningful advances. Blue Origin and SpaceX bitterly fought for title of the company which was first to launch and then land a reusable rocket: Blue origin was indeed first, but with suborbital flight. Of course, they have another significant competitor in the transportation business – the Boeing Company, a long-time contractor with NASA.

And more recently, SpaceX was rattled by a huge explosion of its Falcon rocket on the launchpad, during fuelling procedure. This is seen as a huge setback for SpaceX, and could give some time for Blue Origin to steal the show.

A New Shepard liftoff from Texas in 2016 (Blue Origin)

A New Shepard liftoff from Texas in 2016 (Blue Origin)

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step,” wrote Jeff Bezos in a letter to some of the media the United States. He went on to reveal something else: “Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.”

A future Elon Musk said should be on Mars. If not Mars… Then, a safe return to the Moon and a safe return back to Earth would be, once again, a “giant leap” for mankind. Just perfect for a “New Armstrong.”


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