Quickening Steps Up the Long Ladder to a Reusable Space Architecture

Oh So Close Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 Narrowly Misses                               Credit: SpaceX

This could be the year of the real thing. In an interview conducted just days after his company completed the second successful suborbital launch of its New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson indicated that 2016 should see the same vehicle fly “again and again” as it begins building the experience base which will lead to passenger flights. Along the way, Blue will begin to pick up a revenue stream from commercial and government funded research experiments which will fly aboard the craft.

Further to the east in a Lone Star state which is rapidly becoming the epicenter of commercial rocket development, SpaceX has started a series of hover tests of its Dragon spacecraft.

Although it may be some time before a Dragon returns from orbit under the thrust of SuperDraco engines alone, the company’s recent win in NASA’s CRS-2 supply contract opens a pathway which will quite possibly extend to powered landings for both cargo and crew.

And Again Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin Nails It                                  Credit: Blue Origin

For the moment, the two companies are in very different lanes despite the heated rhetoric between their founders. While Blue Origin has scored an impressive accomplishment in re-flying the New Shepard without a teardown, much less an overhaul of its its BE-3 engine, the flights have been after all, suborbital. Furthermore, neither the engine, nor the architecture is the same as that which will drive the first stage of its planned orbital vehicle. It does however, constitute one hell of start on a second stage, and not to be overlooked, a reusable crew capsule as well.  In fact, one of the more remarkable aspects of Blue Origin’s accomplishments to date is the capsule. Not because it appears to offer any radical improvement in performance like that being developed in the SpaceX Dragon, but the fact that it exists at all, quietly assuming its place beside the Dragon, Boeing’s CST-100/Starliner and of course, Orion. In fact, it is not too soon to begin wondering whether or not a Blue Origin capsule might beat the latter to orbit with crew despite its $16 billion or so head start.

Still, there is a great deal of work to be done before Blue Origin conducts its first orbital launch, much less returns it. Based on the progress so far however, and the obvious technical expertise on hand, there is every reason to believe that eventually the company will do just that, perhaps even, on its first flight. First however, it needs an engine, and in some ways the most exciting news to come out of founder Jeff Bezos’ blog post announcing the New Shepard re-flight was the assertion that the LNG fueled BE-4 engine intended for the orbital booster’s first stage will be undergo full testing this year. Whenever that moment comes, it will mark a shift in the real narrative, and into the lane currently occupied by SpaceX, no matter how many times New Shepard flies, and then flies again.

SpaceX though, is hardly standing still, and although a brief test fire of the recovered Falcon 9 first stage did reveal a thrust oscillation issue with one of nine first stage engines, the bigger story is that there were apparently no problems with the other eight. While a 3 second test fire is a long way from a 180 second burn, it is still an encouraging sign. Provided the company can make good on Elon Musk’s prediction of a 70% recovery rate, there will be plenty of opportunities for full length testing as the year progresses. Even if SpaceX does not manage to mount a first stage re-flight in 2016, merely a confirmation that the Merlin 1-D’s can indeed withstand a second firing without major overhaul may be enough to seal 2016 as a hinge pin in space history, and an acknowledgement that at long last we are quickly climbing up the long ladder to a reusable space architecture. At the other end lies the entire solar system.


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5 Comments on "Quickening Steps Up the Long Ladder to a Reusable Space Architecture"

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  1. Dave Huntsman says:

    One point I’m wondering is, how long will Bezos continue to support Blue 100% out of his own funding, without Blue starting to bring in its own revenue? Elon, despite or because of his Mars dreams, knew he had to bootstrap things to get to his goals; i.e., start getting customers as soon as possible – by undercutting other launch providers – to get the funds needed to keep in going in his more advanced development.

    The major difference being, of course, that Elon (contrary to some media reports) was not a billionaire when he founded SpaceX. Bezos, on the other hand, according to Forbes today, is worth over $50B. So big difference.

    Still, Blue Origin was founded two years before SpaceX. Yet in less time, SpaceX has arguably gone farther; not only becoming probably self-funding (or at least bringing in real income), but disrupting markets in the process. And that was done in his spare time, while he was doing similar things at Tesla, and to a lesser extent, at SolarCity.

    Isn’t Blue the only Bezos venture where, for 15 years, it’s made no attempt to bring in any income at all? Strange.

    • Bart Enkelaar says:

      Far from Jeff’s only non-money-making project. For instance: http://www.10000yearclock.net/

      Still it is interesting. I guess economics work differently if you have 50B backing.

      • Dave Huntsman says:

        Welllll…..I didn’t mean the things that he supports that are essentially “philanthropic”; but something meant eventually to be a real, self-sustaining business.

  2. I remember reading somewhere of a rocket designer’s comment that he didn’t how to design a liquid-fueled engine to NOT be reusable. This suggests to me that all of the hard problems are elsewhere — surviving reentry, control systems for a physical situation (mostly-empty tanks, the possibility of running out of fuel) that’s very different from ascent.

    • Ben says:

      That seems to be an over-simplification. Some rockets use ablative nozzles. It would seem reasonable that an ablative nozzle sized for one firing wouldn’t necessarily be able to fire multiple times.

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