Is SpaceX’s rocket failure Blue Origin’s opportunity?

Jeff Bezos on Monday released the design and engineering details of a powerful, new rocket being developed by his aerospace company Blue Origin. The Amazon founder and CEO also alluded to future plans to colonize the moon or Mars.

Blue Origin

In an impeccably timed announcement, Jeff Bezos Monday released the design and engineering details of a new rocket being developed by his aerospace company, Blue Origin. Named "New Glenn" after the first US astronaut to orbit Earth, John Glenn, the powerful new rocket is designed to launch commercial satellites and humans into space, says Mr. Bezos in a brief email announcement.

In reporting his company’s news, Bezos could not resist taking some jabs at Elon Musk’s SpaceX. The Tesla Motors founder's spaceflight venture has been facing scrutiny in the last week over the reliability of its technology after losing a Falcon 9 rocket to an explosion during a fuel test on Sept. 1. Onboard was Facebook’s $200 million communications satellite, which was meant to connect large swaths of sub-Saharan Africa to the internet.

“Our mascot is the tortoise. We paint one on our vehicles after each successful flight. Our motto is 'Gradatim Ferociter' – step by step, ferociously. We believe ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ In the long run, deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps. This step-by-step approach is a powerful enabler of boldness and a critical ingredient in achieving the audacious,” Bezos said in the announcement, drawing attention to the contrast between his company and Mr. Musk’s.

SpaceX is about five years older than Blue Origin. That means it's much farther ahead in developing a reusable rocket, considered the top priority for commercial spaceflight companies that are trying to lower costs. SpaceX already has built a vibrant spaceflight business, with hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of contracts secured to deliver cargo for NASA to the International Space Station and communications satellites into orbit for commercial customers. The company was supposed to start shuttling astronauts to the space station next year, but all activity has been put on hold while SpaceX and federal agencies investigate the Sept. 1 explosion.

The traditionally secretive Blue Origin, meanwhile, has been focused on space tourism and only cryptically alluded today to mysterious grand plans for its space business and for human colonization. It isn’t delivering cargo to space yet, but the company is starting to open its curtain a little wider and offering glimpses into its spaceflight developments. Blue Origin has good reason to be a little more public, following several successful suborbital launches and booster, or engine, landings of its New Shepard rocket (named after astronaut Alan Shepard, who became the first American to reach space in 1961).

“[Blue Origin] wants to generate more interest in the group overall, to let people know that it’s not just Elon Musk who’s doing this,” Matthew Bey, energy, science and technology analyst at Stratfor, a global research firm and think tank, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

New Glenn is bigger and has a more powerful engine than New Shepard and will be able to fly cargo and humans beyond low-Earth orbit by the end of the decade, according to Bezos. Blue Origin has been quietly working on the rocket for four years. A rendering of two versions of New Glenn shows them in a rocket lineup, towering over their competitors: the Delta IV Heavy by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX’s forthcoming Falcon Heavy rocket, which, before the explosion, was supposed to lift off for the first time by the end of this year.

If Mr. Bey is interpreting the clues in Bezos’ announcement correctly, the Amazon founder could be entering Musk's territory with ambitions next for human colonization of the moon or Mars. “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,” says Bezos in today’s note.

“Look at the pattern of names,” Bey suggests. He points out that Blue Origin rockets appear to have been strategically named after the astronaut associated with each of the country’s major space milestones: from the first person to reach space (Alan Shepard), to the first one to orbit Earth (John Glenn), to the first person to walk on the moon (Neil Armstrong).

“But that’s a story for the future,” writes Bezos.

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