There is so much to say about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com and Blue Origin: he is not lacking in ambition. First Bezos founded an online bookstore that became the largest retailer in the western world, and now he plans to self-finance a New Glenn rocket that is nearly as big as the Saturn V launch vehicle and more than half as powerful .
As wild as Bezos’ idea sounds, Blue Origin could get the job done. And if Bezos and Blue Origin can get their massive orbital rocket flying in the next three to four years, it would be a remarkable, unprecedented achievement in a number of ways that could revolutionize spaceflight.
Proof of concept
First, a few words about why this could actually be viable. It is true that all Blue Origin has flown so far is a propulsion module, powered by a single BE-3 engine, and a capsule on suborbital flight. The company’s New Shepard spacecraft is designed to carry six passengers in jumps of 10 to 15 minutes over a distance of about 100 km before returning them to Earth. This is similar to the first Mercury flights in the early 1960s, hence the nickname New Shepard, named after pioneering astronaut Alan Shepard.
But as simple as the New Shepard system may seem, everything in it is designed to scale to New Glenn. The missiles have the same shape. The BE-4 engine is a continuation of the reusable BE-3 engine. Both New Shepard and New Glenn are designed for a flight life of at least 25 missions. And here’s the crazy thing about Bezos: He thinks the bigger New Glenn rocket will be easier to land.
“The reason I like vertical landing is because it scales so well,” he explained earlier this year. “New Shepard is about 80 feet long. It’s the shortest vehicle we’ll ever make. It gets easier to land the vehicles as they get bigger. It’s the reverse pendulum problem. It’s easier to balance bigger things I like those architectures Parachutes have the opposite problem as things get bigger it’s very difficult you can’t build a parachute that’s 300 feet in diameter Even wings they scale pretty well to a certain size but they’re ultimately a lot of dead weight to carry.”
The bottom line: New Shepard may be small, but since Blue Origin has now launched and landed the same rocket four times, there’s reason to believe that an orbital rocket based on the same concepts written big just might work . New Shepard is the test bed, the proof of concept. So far it works pretty much flawlessly.
Bezos is worth more than $60 billion, making him the third or fourth richest person in the world, depending on the value of Amazon’s stock. While he hasn’t made his investment in Blue Origin public since 2014, it’s probably over $1 billion now. That small (for someone with his means) investment financed the company for 16 years and led to the development of four generations of engines, including the BE-4. Its impressive 550,000 pounds of thrust powers the orbital rocket.
SpaceX and Elon Musk deserve credit for shaking up the aerospace industry with cheaper rockets and reusability, but SpaceX hasn’t been largely self-funded. A majority of the revenue comes from NASA. Multibillion dollar contracts have allowed SpaceX to develop the Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule. Blue Origin, on the other hand, received a paltry $25.7 million from NASA as part of the early stages of the commercial crew program.
Bezos is under no pressure from investors to rush development, and he is under no pressure from customers to promise a specific delivery date. The success of his vehicle does not depend on winning a contract from NASA or subcontracting from one of the major aerospace companies such as Lockheed Martin or Boeing. New Glenn depends solely on Bezos’ ambition and his willingness to fund the project, which seems ample.
“I’m totally willing to fund this for as long as it takes,” he said earlier this year. “There are much easier ways to make money. You don’t go through the list of best risk return opportunities and find space flight. It’s not. The reason you’re doing this is because you’re a missionary for this. You’re passionate about it about.”
Rumors are circulating that Bezos is stepping down as CEO at Amazon. He wants to spend more than the one day a week he works on Blue Origin. This indicates that his passion will be more focused on space travel than trade in the future. He has, of course, always been fascinated by space travel. Now he has the money to fulfill those interests.
Bezos reiterated Blue Origin’s goal in an email today: “Our vision is for millions of people to live and work in space.” And while he may have started small with his proof-of-concept vehicle, New Shepard, New Glenn’s scope reveals that Bezos is really, really serious about spaceflight. For his orbital rocket, he could have chosen a launch vehicle based on one or two BE-4 engines, which would have been powerful enough to launch satellites into low Earth orbit. This would have been a step towards greater ambitions. Instead, he went for seven engines and 3.85 million pounds of thrust, nearly twice as powerful as any rocket flying today. In other words, Blue Origin wants to go from a small, suborbital rocket to one that is four times its height and has 35 times the thrust. That’s quite a leap.
Other than an orbital rocket, when I had a chance to speak with Bezos earlier this year, he specified no plan for how millions of people will live and work in space once they get there. But it’s clear he believes they’ll have to live off land, be it the moon, asteroids, or worlds beyond. “I think we have a lot of time to figure that out,” Bezos said. “My view is that you plan for the near future, and you develop longer term scenarios, because so many things change between now and then there’s no point in making detailed plans for things like how you’re going to do the harvesting from near-Earth sources. You want to think about those things, you want to develop scenarios, but you don’t have to go all the way to a planning stage.”
“Near-Earth objects” is an interesting word choice. We can further deduce some of his intentions from the name for the next rocket beyond New Glenn, which will be called New Armstrong. If New Shepard’s namesake, Alan Shepard, made America’s first suborbital flight and John Glenn made the first orbital flight, then we all know what Neil Armstrong did. Will the world’s fourth richest person tease plans Monday morning to mine or maybe even colonize the moon?
All available evidence suggests he is serious. We look forward to seeing if he succeeds.