Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Blue Origin enters the fray

There are a number of interesting companies innovating with rockets these days (such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR), but only one that goes to orbit: SpaceX. For the last decade the story of innovation in space access has been the story of SpaceX first and "everyone else" a distant second. Who knows, maybe the XCOR Lynx or Virgin's SpaceShip Three will reach orbit one day, but then again, maybe not.

And that's an unfortunate situation for space enthusiasts, because it's competition which really drives companies to lower prices. SpaceX can lower its costs all day long, but without competition it would have less incentive to open up the space market to everyone. SpaceX needs competitors.

Luckily, as I have mentioned before, United Launch Alliance seems to have finally gotten the memo that the old way of doing things under NASA isn't going to cut it anymore, and real innovation is needed. Their work towards reusability and creating platforms for exploring cis-lunar space is great stuff.

Now a third company has really come into the top ranks: Blue Origin.

Of course Blue Origin is not a new company. They've been around for over ten years now, but they've been so secretive that it was impossible to know what they were really working on or how much progress they were making. Would they get to orbit like SpaceX has been doing, or were they stuck in a sub-orbital development cycle like XCOR or Virgin? Until very recently, we had no idea.

BO's first flight test was April 2015, one year ago this month. It then flew and landed its New Shepard vehicle in November 2015 (reaching space but not orbit), January 2016, and April 2016. That means it has flown the same rocket (not just the same model, but the same actual vehicle) to space three times now and landed it safely. That's higher and with a better flight record than the SpaceX Grasshopper achieved in 2014.

Of course the SpaceX rockets are going to orbit, so they're much bigger, flying higher, and going much faster than the Blue Origin rocket. Successfully landing the SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage last year was a much harder problem in many ways. SpaceX is in the lead in this race, but let's give Blue Origin credit where it's due: They're in the race. No one else (except maybe ULA) can say that.

What Bezos is doing is critical to actually realizing the promise of low-cost access to space. Fly, land, refuel, fly again, cheap. This is mandatory for low-cost space. We don't need another Space Shuttle that cost $1-1.5 billion per launch. So far, SpaceX has shown it can make rockets fairly cheaply and get them to orbit. Blue Origin is showing it can fly rockets and then fly them again. (SpaceX has yet to do this) The company that puts those two features together will be able to change the world. And of course we hope they'll both succeed, so we can all reap the rewards of competition, lower prices, and continued innovation far into the future.

No comments:

Post a Comment