For the past 15 years, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has been the great mystery of the space industry. The rocket company, founded by the Amazon.com chief executive officer, received attention because of its super-rich backer and the occasional test-launch video that wowed space geeks. For the most part, though, Blue Origin avoided publicity and, frankly, didn’t seem to be accomplishing all that much relative to its peers—namely, Elon Musk’s SpaceX. But it’s now very clear that Blue Origin is ready to move into the limelight and that a modern, thrilling space race is well underway.
On Monday, Blue Origin sent its New Shepard ship into space and brought the body of the rocket back down to earth. The spaceship landed just four and half feet from where it took off, despite 120-mile-per-hour crosswinds. “Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts—a used rocket,” Bezos said in a statement. “Full reuse is a game changer, and we can’t wait to fuel up and fly again.”
At present, Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies is the low-cost provider of rocket launches, charging about $60 million a pop to get something big into space. The hope is that reusable rockets could one day bring that price closer to $6 million per launch, when you’re not throwing away a very expensive piece of equipment after each trip. At such prices, the commercial space industry would be altered forever, making space travel viable for tourists, researchers, and many companies for the first time.
Blue Origin’s feat comes with several caveats. First off, this was just a test run. Blue Origin has yet to complete a single rocket launch for a paying customer. The New Shepard vehicle is also aimed more at space tourism, to take people to the edge of space, where they can hang out weightlessly for a few minutes before returning to earth. The engineering expertise required to send a rocket high enough to place a satellite into orbit or take supplies to the International Space Station is much more demanding. So, too, are the physics behind landing such a rocket on earth.
For its part, SpaceX has successfully landed its much larger rockets back on a test pad after brief flights. It has also come very close on a couple of occasions to landing its rocket on a barge floating in the ocean after sending commercial payloads into space. But SpaceX failed to execute a successful landing on a real flight before Blue Origin achieved its milestone.
The animosity between the two companies and their founders continues to swell. On Twitter, Musk briefly congratulated Bezos and then issued a series of follow-up messages explaining how SpaceX’s quest is a more difficult engineering project and that other groups had landed vehicles after “suborbital” flights in the past. In this case, calling Blue Origin a “suborbital” player is the physicist way of saying, “Your engineering is weak, bro.”
Musk’s animosity toward Bezos and Blue Origin are understandable. When Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, he was already an incredibly rich man thanks to Amazon. Bezos felt no pressure to turn the company into a for-profit operation. Instead, he allowed a team of engineers to work in near-total secrecy for years on end and kept funding the company, despite slow progress. He has taken a more leisurely approach to becoming a space magnate.
Musk did not have these luxuries in 2002, when he started SpaceX. He had made more than $200 million from the sale of PayPal, which he co-founded and sold to EBay, but Musk had to split that money among SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and then SolarCity. To keep SpaceX going, Musk had to quickly build the company into a global player in the aerospace industry, battling government-backed launch companies in Russia, China, Europe, and the U.S. These pressures almost destroyed SpaceX in the early days, but they had the added benefit of pushing the company to advance its technology at a quick clip. SpaceX has since completed about 20 successful missions and has a backlog of flights valued at several billion dollars.
Perhaps because of these different approaches, Musk has been known to hurl barbs at Bezos. SpaceX and Blue Origin, for example, fought at one point over access to a NASA launch pad. At the time, Musk told SpaceNews that Blue Origin “has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending 10 years in development. If they do somehow show up in the next five years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
SpaceX and Blue Origin have also squabbled over the poaching of employees. At one point, SpaceX set up an e-mail filter to look for anyone receiving an e-mail with “Blue Origin” in the text, and its employees regularly refer to the competitor simply as “B.O.,” as I wrote in Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, my biography of Musk. The SpaceX CEO has taken exception, as well, to Blue Origin’s attempts to patent the reusable rocket technology, giving rise to one of the more memorable quotations in the Musk canon: “There’s no chance whatsoever of the patent being upheld because there’s five decades of prior art of people who proposed that six ways to Sunday in fiction and nonfiction,” Musk told me for the book. “It’s like Dr. Seuss, green eggs, and f---ing ham. That’s how many ways it’s been proposed. The issue is doing it and, like, actually creating a rocket that can make that happen.”
Their engineering spats aside, SpaceX and Blue Origin have opened up the potential for incredible advancement in the space industry. The traditional aerospace players had shown almost no interest in pursuing reusable rockets until these upstarts came along. Now every major launch provider has fired up a research project or started talking about reusable rockets again, knowing that they may well need such technology to remain competitive.
The two startups have also proven that billionaires with sci-fi dreams really can compete with government-backed companies blessed with tremendous funding and decades of experience. Previous rich-guy space enthusiasts, such as Andrew Beal, had runs of success but never managed to emerge as real launch competitors. It now looks as if the U.S., having gone from dominant to becoming utterly uncompetitive in the global launch market, has the two most promising space startups in the world and will perhaps be the leader in the aerospace industry. All thanks to an online bookseller and that PayPal guy.