Sunday, September 18, 2016

Blue Origin: New Glenn, New Armstrong

New Glenn

Jeff Bezos announced to the media via an email (which in its own way is an unusual choice - why not a blog post on the company website) that their new rocket they were building is going to be called New Glenn, and it's a big sucker. Here's a picture:

As you can see, Blue Origin will not be messing around with small rockets like their New Shepard for much longer. They're going straight past the small orbital rocket stage, even past the medium-sized rocket stage, and going right for heavy lift.

The only numbers we know about New Glenn are-

  • 23 feet diameter
  • 270-313 feet tall
  • 3.85 million lbs force at sea level
  • 7 BE-4 engines

The interesting number here is the force at sea level. 3.85 million lbs is a lot. That's 60% more force than the fully optimized Falcon 9 or Delta IV Heavy, and 72% more force than the Falcon 9 was rated at when it first entered service. It's about 30% less than the Falcon Heavy is aiming for and half of the Saturn V. In other words, Blue Origin is skipping right past the current state of the art in heavy lift and is going for super-heavy lift. It's ambitious, to say the least.

However the two most important numbers are missing - price and payload mass to orbit. A rocket could have infinite thrust, but it only takes off to the extent its thrust exceeds its own mass * force the gravity. And it's only useful to the extent that its thrust is greater than mass*gravity such that there's mass left over for cargo. And it's only economically relevant to the extent it can do that for a reasonable amount of money. After all, NASA's SLS will have plenty of thrust too - it's the $2 billion per flight price tag that's the issue.

I am optimistic that Blue Origin's numbers will be good, but that's mostly just because I trust Jeff Bezos. I can't look at this pretty graphic up above and tell you what mass fraction New Glenn will be able to reserve for cargo. I'm just sort of assuming that Jeff Bezos knows a lot about shipping products from point A to point B and has given his engineers clear goals about what sort of payload sizes he expects. I'm also assuming that New Glenn will be fully reusable (like New Shepard is proving to be) and that whatever construction costs Blue Origin faces, it will be amortized over multiple flights and will therefore already be cheaper than any provider that isn't SpaceX.

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that this is interesting but "watch this space for further details".

New Armstrong

At the end of the letter announcing New Glenn, Bezos teased (without providing any further details) that Blue Origin's next rocket will be named New Armstrong. If it's not clear to you already, let me spell this out - Blue Origin is naming their rockets after the first Americans to achieve certain milestones.

Blue Origin's first liquid fueled test vehicle was named Goddard, after Robert H. Goddard, the inventor of the liquid fueled rocket.

Blue Origin's first sub-orbital rocket that could reach space was named New Shepard, after Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in a sub-orbital Mercury rocket to space.

Blue Origin is now naming their first orbital rocket New Glenn, after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth.

New Armstrong must then of course be named after Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon. The assumption then is that Blue Origin's New Armstrong is being designed to go beyond Earth orbit to the Moon and beyond.

Bezos has stated that he wants to help build the infrastructure that opens up the entire solar system to economic development and colonization. He's specifically mentioned manufacturing on the Moon and developing the resources available from asteroids. I suspect that New Armstrong will be the rocket that starts us going down that path. To that end, I would expect the following-

  • It's going to be really, really big. Obviously.
  • All stages will be reusable. Not just the first stage.
  • It's primary mission will be to launch mining equipment, true space ships, and space habitats - infrastructure that never comes back to Earth, but spends the rest of its existence in space. These habitats will allow workers (who fly up on a New Glenn maybe) to service commercial and scientific activity in LEO, GEO, and Lunar Lagrange points.

As I mentioned in the New Glenn section, I don't have enough numbers here to really get excited, but I'm starting to get excited by Jeff Bezos. His long term goals are ones I share, and thanks to running Amazon he knows a thing or two about shipping products from point A to point B, operating at large scales, and delivering value at low marginal cost. I think this is really happening, and Elon Musk finally has some real competition for being the man that opens space.

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