If there were any possibility that SpaceX founder Elon Musk would step back from a highly anticipated announcement of his company’s next big booster in September in deference to the current Falcon 9 investigation, it has likely been erased by the bombshell dropped by Jeff Bezos on Monday.
It came in the form of a graphic delivered via Twitter, depicting Blue Origin’s next project, which will be its first orbital rocket. Named New Glenn, it is, in a word, enormous, coming in both a two and three stage version which physically dwarfs everything but the Saturn V. Curiously, the graphic omits NASA’s Space Launch System entirely, even as it draws a comparison to its predecessor.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) September 12, 2016
A few more details regarding the booster came in an email sent to news outlets.
“Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and lifts off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines. Burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, these are the same BE-4 engines that will power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.
“The 2-stage New Glenn is 270 feet tall, and its second stage is powered by a single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine. The 3-stage New Glenn is 313 feet tall. A single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, powers its third stage. The booster and the second stage are identical in both variants.
“We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade from historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida. New Glenn is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space. The 3-stage variant – with its high specific impulse hydrogen upper stage – is capable of flying demanding beyond-LEO missions.
“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.”
While performance specs for New Glenn were not offered, Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin estimated that the 2 stage version should have an LEO lift capacity of around 70 metric tons, putting it on par with NASA’s Space Launch System, and ahead of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy which comes it at 54 tons.
What stands out about the Blue Origin announcement, beyond the sheer audacity of beginning orbital flight with a reusable booster bigger than anything being offered on the commercial market is just how different an approach Blue Origin is taking to the trail blazed by SpaceX.
With an estimated net worth of around $11 billion, Elon Musk is no poor man. But compared to Bezos, whose holdings are roughly 6 times that amount, he has limitations. Consequently, and always torn between Tesla and SpaceX, Musk has followed a remarkably conservative route in guiding the latter, even as it has shattered performance and cost barriers. SpaceX began with the diminutive, and decidedly primitive Falcon 1 and a handful of hard fought launch contracts. After abandoning the Falcon 5 when the opportunity to proceed straight to the Falcon 9 was presented by NASA and the COTS/CRS programs, Musk’s rocket company has taken remarkable, but still sequential steps, each enabled by a launch manifest split between government and commercial missions.
What has thus far set SpaceX apart, is that it has been taking steps in the first place.
Blue Origin by contrast, fueled by Bezos’ almost inconceivable personal wealth, accumulated one Amazon Prime delivery at a time, is seeking to make what would be rocketry’s single greatest leap ever, of all time, all without anything that resembles a a single conventional launch contract and only a pittance of government support.
And there is no reason to conclude he won’t succeed, at least on a technical basis.
It is the market analysis, or rather the lack of a defined market altogether, which may represent the biggest leap of all.
Or maybe not.
After decades of overwrought policy analysis bemoaning the need to build consensus within the aerospace community, or to establish the “value proposition” within the political community for what might follow the Space Shuttle, Jeff Bezos, imbued with a passionate personal belief in the value of spaceflight on an individual basis, may simply be betting that millions of others share that belief.
It is a bet he can afford, and the future may all be the richer for it.