Amazon founder and space enthusiast Jeff Bezos reflects on the improvements to rocket engineering being attempted by Blue Origin, his Kent-based company.
Gesturing to the weathered components of the engine that powered Apollo 12 into space in 1969, Amazon chief and space enthusiast Jeff Bezos said Thursday at the Museum of Flight, “This is still in some ways the most remarkable rocket engine ever engineered.”
Then he added, “That’s a little embarrassing. It’s 2015.”
Bezos, who has founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin, said in a short interview that the Apollo program’s Rocketdyne F-1 engine “was incredibly reliable and incredibly big, but it’s kind of a blunt instrument … It’s time we humans had a better engine.”
Blue Origin is working on that, among other things.
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It plans a second launch by year’s end for its New Shepard rocket, named after Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space. In April its first attempt carried an empty crew capsule 58 miles up and returned it to Earth safely.
“We’re ready and excited to fly again,” said Bezos at the museum ceremony, “This time, if we’re lucky and everything goes right … we’re going to try again to recover the first stage.”
Until now, the first stages of launch rockets have been designed to fall into the sea after boosting their payloads into space.
“We don’t like throwing the hardware away,” Bezos said. “We’d like to re-use it.”
No one has yet managed to land and re-use a launch rocket — seen as the key to making space travel more routine and affordable — though both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin seem to be close.
Blue Origin developed its own new engine to power New Shephard, and it has a larger successor engine in the works aimed at replacing the Russian engines that now lift the biggest U.S. launch rockets into space.
Those new engines burn more efficiently and much cleaner than the F-1 engines did.
Still, Bezos marveled at how rocket scientists led by Wernher von Braunbuilt such impressive engines five decades ago without the computer-design tools, the computer-controlled machining and the 3-D printing manufacturing methods now available to his engineers.
“We have tools today that von Braun and all the 1960s-era rocket designers couldn’t even have dreamed of,” he said.
Bezos, who has degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, said he follows closely the work of his more than 400 top engineers at Blue Origin’s design headquarters in Kent.
“I probably know as much about rockets as I do about computer science,” he said.
After the official ceremony at the Museum of Flight, Bezos lingered in front of the disc-shaped fuel injector from an Apollo 12 engine — which if it were lying in the street might be mistaken for an outsized manhole cover — and spoke rapturously about how this heavy hunk of metal was formed into an intricate design that he called “one of the great feats of human engineering.”
He pointed to the tiny holes through which the high-pressure fuel was pushed before combustion, in order to cool the metal and keep it from melting, before that same fuel generated the engine’s tremendous heat when ignited.
Bezos, who seems full of unbridled enthusiasms, said he “tap dances into work” at Amazon.
Blue Origin, the result of a passion formed when he watched the Apollo moon landings on TV as a 5-year-old, clearly also captures his heart as well as his brain.
“To interact with the engineers at Blue Origin is a joy,” said Bezos. “For me, it’s not work.”
Information in this article, originally published Nov. 19, 2015, was corrected Nov. 21, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the fuel used in the F-1 Apollo engines as “cryogenic.” The oxidizer used in those engines is cryogenic, but not the fuel, which is similar to kerosene.