The rocket model that will take Jeff Bezos and three others into space on Tuesday has performed almost flawlessly on 15 previous launches. Almost.
On the first try in April 2015, the pioneering self-landing booster rocket crashed to Earth and was destroyed.
Blue Origin engineers responded, perfecting the innovative launch technology they’d created with the New Shepard rocket — though the failure highlights the difficulty and the attendant risks.
“That’s the reason we do test,” said Gary Lai, lead designer of New Shepard. “We found the problem from that mission, which was an issue with the hydraulic system, and we fixed it.”
“We look for those gems of learning that will allow us to improve the next mission,” he added. “And when that works out and you nail it, that’s the best professional feeling of satisfaction you can ever get.”
Tuesday’s launch, scheduled for 6 a.m. Pacific time, will be the first time the New Shepard rocket has carried people. (For live coverage, visit seattletimes.com)
Bezos will be accompanied by his younger brother, Mark Bezos; 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, son of a private equity CEO who bought the ticket for an undisclosed price; and 82-year-old Wally Funk, one of the original female astronaut candidates for NASA who qualified for the Mercury missions but never got to go to space.
Blue Origin’s engineering leadership is confident the technology is ready.
Its marketers are now selling space tourist rides, with ticket pricing undisclosed but expected to be in the range of $300,000 to $500,000 per 11-minute trip.
“If there was any sort of technical issue and risk that we were worried about, we’ve already taken care of that,” said Lai.
Something new in the world
Blue Origin, funded by Bezos’ Amazon-fueled wealth, had only about 400 employees when New Shepard first flew. It’s grown rapidly to about 3,700 now, including about 2,600 based at the Kent headquarters.
The rest are at the Blue Origin launch site in the remote desert scrubland outside Van Horn in West Texas; at the factory now building its forthcoming New Glenn orbital rocket at Kennedy Space Center, Florida; and at its rocket engine plant in Huntsville, Alabama.
Before 2015, few outside of science fiction had imagined, and no one had seen, the innovation New Shepard was the first to pull off.
After the passenger capsule separates, the booster rocket is designed to return to Earth with a pinpoint vertical landing on a pad about 2 miles from where it took off.
All previous space launches — by the U.S., Russia and other nations — treated the booster rockets as expendable. NASA launches its missions from Florida so its big boosters can fall into the ocean.
Instead, Blue Origin designed New Shepard to be reusable — a critical element in bringing down the cost of space launches.
On the April 2015 launch, it didn’t work. The uncrewed capsule detached as planned and rose for a few minutes into space, then floated down safely with parachutes. But the booster rocket crashed to Earth and was destroyed.
The hydraulic system that deploys the drag brakes and the landing legs had lost pressure during the descent, it turned out.
Just six-and-a-half months later, however, New Shepard flew for the second time, and this time the booster rocket stuck the landing, as it has done on all subsequent launches.
The 15 New Shepard launches have been conducted using only four rockets. Demonstrating the reusability, one of those flew up and down seven times.
“That’s the reason we become engineers, to innovate on that level,” said Lai. “There were so many things that we knew we couldn’t model and we just had to test it.”
“There was a period of extreme elation,” he said of that first success in November 2015. “You feel satisfaction that you’re working on a team that has this capability.”
Musk vs Bezos
Just a month after that first successful Blue Origin flight, commercial space rival SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, emulated the vertical rocket landing for the first stage of its much larger Falcon 9 orbital booster. SpaceX has made it almost routine since then — though not quite.
Beginning in 2010, SpaceX has launched its Falcon 9 rockets 122 times — many more launches than Blue Origin — and since its first booster landing in 2015 it has successfully repeated 81 landings either on a ground pad or a drone ship. But last year, it suffered two failures and lost the boosters, and it lost another in February this year.
In March, an uncrewed prototype of the even bigger SpaceX Starship crashed during a landing attempt.
Still, SpaceX has already completed three crewed missions, ferrying a total of 10 astronauts from Earth to the International Space Station.
Musk’s swashbuckling attitude — bypassing the tamer suborbital phase of spaceflight to go directly to orbital rockets and pushing ahead through multiple uncrewed failures — has given SpaceX a huge lead over Blue Origin in the commercial space business.
In April, NASA awarded the sole contract for the next moon mission to SpaceX, rejecting a bid from Blue Origin, which has filed a protest.
Bezos’s tortoise-vs-hare approach — which he has embedded in Blue Origin emblems and its Latin motto, ‘”Gradatim Ferociter” or “step by step ferociously” — is certainly more appropriate for spaceflight with humans on board.
Asked about the rivalry with SpaceX, Lai said: “We have an approach. We are sticking to it.
“We do have the same goals of flying orbital rockets eventually with people,” he added.
That makes Tuesday a critical milestone for Blue Origin.