Elon Musk and SpaceX have been garnering many of the headlines in the private launch vehicle arena, but Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has been quietly achieving very positive, and arguably greater, success launching and landing rockets.

The company’s New Shepard rocket recently completed its second successful launch and landing. Currently, the launches are sub-orbital in nature. The rocket and attached capsule launch, the capsule is released above the official dividing line between atmosphere and space, the capsule experiences about 3 minutes of microgravity, then it comes back to Earth, deploys its parachutes and touches down.

blueoriginlanding

Like SpaceX’s rocket, New Shepard lands vertically so it can be reused.

 

blueorigin process

Blue Origin plans to begin operational flights in the second quarter of 2016. These flights will be unmanned, instead launching experiments in lockers – a small, 49 liter volume, up to 25 pound size, and a larger, 102 liter volume, up to 50 pound size which is exactly twice the footprint. These are interesting in that they are of similar size to those I used to install on the Space Shuttle and also use the same 28 volt power.

blueoriginlocker

There is currently no schedule set for manned launches, but they have an astronaut experience already advertised on their web site. It will take passengers to an altitude of 100 km and provide three minutes of weightlessness along with unparalleled views out of over-sized windows.

Blue Origin is a testament to the fact that space companies are growing in number and that privatization of space access and exploration seems to be working. I will be the first to admit that I was skeptical when the Obama administration announced a major change in direction for national space ambitions when in 2010 it canceled NASA’s moon program and called for commercialization. My sentiments echoed that of former NASA administrator Mike Griffin who said at the time, “I’m one of the biggest proponents of commercial spaceflight that there is, but it doesn’t yet exist. I would like an enlightened government policy to help bring it about, but I don’t believe you get there by destroying all your government capability so there’s no option but for the government to do whatever necessary to get the ‘commercial operators’ to succeed. That’s not the way to do it.”

It looks like the government has succeeded in walking that fine line between national goals and commercial endeavors by pushing forward with such grand plans as the Orion spacecraft and manned missions to Mars while at the same time enabling companies like Blue Origin to get into the space game. I’m glad I was wrong in my misgivings about privatization of space programs, and am eager to see what the coming years bring.

 

Image credits: Blue Origin

 

Posted by Darren Beyer

14 Comments

  1. Blue Origin does not have a perfect track record. The first New Shepard launch failed to land and crashed in the desert.

    Reply

    1. Joachim, thank you for the comment. The “perfect track record” statement came in the paragraph related to landings and I wasn’t clear that I was referring to such. I’ve updated the post.

      Reply

      1. Actually they don’t have a perfect track record on landings. They tried and failed to land on the 29 April 2015 (the vehicles first test flight) From what i remember of the top of my head it was mentioned that they ran out of hydraulic fluid before the landing (very much like SpaceX’s first ADS Landing) resulting in the loss of the stage.

      2. > Not to knock SpaceX, but unlike that competitor,
        > Blue Origin has a perfect track record on landings

        Not to knock your article, but it’s still not accurate. They’ve lost two in flight, one at Mach 1.2 in 2011 and another in April of last year that failed during the descent and landing phase. Their track record on landings is really, really not perfect. I don’t know if this correction is hurting some narrative you’re pushing or what. Their successful landings are impressive enough, is this swipe at a competitor really worth harming your credibility?

      3. My understanding was that the landing couldn’t be attempted because of a loss of hydraulics during descent. I could be wrong in that assumption, but the company has been quiet on exactly what the nature of the failure was. I’m not trying to be snarky or push any particular narrative, but descent and landing are two very different parts of flight. Comparing it an aircraft mishap, it would be like one aircraft crashing because it was unable to drop its landing gear during descent and another crashing because its gear collapsed on landing. In the latter, you have no ability to apply an alternative solution. In the former, actions can be taken to mitigate the results. Regardless, I changed the post to alleviate any further confusion and assuage any perceived slight.

      4. “My understanding was that the landing couldn’t be attempted because of a loss of hydraulics during descent”

        Isn’t it a landing failure if they intended to land it but didn’t/couldn’t through a failure of the rocket after separation and during the decent faze?

        If you follow that logic you can’t class SpaceX’s first ASDS landing attempt as a landing failure as they ran out of hydraulics for the grid fins some 20-30s before the landing attempt, so the hydraulics failed during decent despite hitting the barge.

      5. So this is an interesting point. Where does the descent phase end and the landing phase begin? In aviation it is defined as “From the beginning of the landing flare until aircraft exits the landing runway, comes to a stop on the runway…” That is a very narrow range. I’m a pilot, and I would classify when the aircraft is committed to the landing – which is what the flare is. Additionally, it could be argued that it doesn’t matter where a malfunction occurs, but rather where it manifests itself. The Sioux City crash happened on landing, but the cause happened during cruise. It was a crash on landing, however. Could the SpaceX rocket aborted? Does it matter since a landing was attempted? I guess in the end it comes down to semantics.

      6. I agree it is an interesting point. If you take that definition of landing then can you class SpaceX’s last attempt was a success? They had the rocket stationary and vertical on the barge with the engines shut down, could it be classed as post landing gear failure! I would imagine that they do have a way of aborting but as it was at sea chose to continue so they could collect more data.

      7. The last landing is really close. It might be splitting hairs, but I’m not sure it ever came to a full stop. Vertical motion had ceased, but it looks like as soon as that happened, rotational motion began.

  2. While Blue Origin’s accomplishments are indeed milestones, what SpaceX is doing is orders of magnitude more difficult. SpaceX first stage engines go MANY TIMES FASTER and MUCH HIGHER than Blue Origin’s passenger vehicles. Returning SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stage is more significant not just because it is much harder. As far as the spacecraft that they carry is concerned, Blue Origin’s current spacecrraft only go to lower suborbital space at no more than a couple of thousands of miles per hour while Falcon 9 payloads are going all the way to orbit where they travel at 17,500 miles per hour.

    As for Mike Griffin’s comments, they are politically motivated. No one, not even anyone in the current administration wants to “get there by destroying all your government capability”. Griffin, when he was administrator, chose to take NASA down the wrong technological path. We can have BOTH commercial and NASA developed vehicles, but cost has to be a consideration to get the maximum done within NASA’s given budget.

    Reply

  3. The author wrote: “SpaceX have been garnering many of the headlines in the private launch vehicle arena, but Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has been quietly achieving very positive, and arguably greater, success launching and landing rockets.”

    Arguably GREATER success :LAUNCHING rockets? Really?

    Just how many IN TOTAL rockets have Blue Origin launched? Suborbital? Orbital?

    Yes I can easily argue that you are not just wrong on greater :LAUNCH success but wrong on an order of magnitude wrong. SpaceX has launched successfully 20 times? Mutiliple payloads to orbit? And you are going to try an argue that Blue Origin is launching more successfully?

    Reply

    1. I’m actually not trying to argue anything. And the statement was “success in launching and landing.” Note that the “and landing” is a very important qualifier.

      Reply

  4. I believe the capsule is released *below* the official boundary between Earth and space, and coasts, weightless, upwards, before reaching apex and beginning to descend down. I think you want “After” at the start of that sentence.

    Reply

  5. well both are good but they are different in nature first the space X rocket is much larger it probably can launch with the blue origin stage as a second stage (not that they want to) the difference also comes from speed space X is launching to get to Orbit with needs to have a total speed of 25000 KM/h sideways toward the earth now the first stage of the space X rocket gets it moving to about 5000 km/h or 8000 if it tries to land on the barge then the second stage takes it from there this is tho a bit deceptive as the resistance (from air from gravity is strongest in the beginning. the Blue Origin just goes for a height in altitude of 100 km the top speed the stage have will most likely be about 2000 Km/h this is fine since they dont care about staying in space they just wanna get there and go back.

    Reply

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