Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin Will Revamp Spaceflight . . . One Day . . . Soon?

Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule escaped to an altitude of 2,307 feet before deploying parachutes for a safe return Courtesy Blue Origin

Here’s the near-term future for Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s commercial space startup: Any day now, the company will begin making suborbital flights. Blue Origin will let researchers and other companies take a payload up into space—topping out at 100 kilometers—for about three to four minutes. The hope is that Blue Origin will be able to do this at a moment’s notice and do it often.

“You will tell us that you need to get on the pad that morning,” Erika Wagner, the business development manager at Blue Origin, said during a commercial space conference held last weekend in Silicon Valley. “We will roll out of the garage. We will do a countdown and go. This is gas and go. This is not sitting on the launchpad for months.”

Blue Origin remains that odd mixture of secretive and boastful. It delivers information about test flights in drips and drabs and does not grant the press anything in the way of access. And yet there’s Wagner talking about Blue Origin’s coming ability to change the economics of suborbital flights, in large part because the company has designed reusable vehicles that can take off and land vertically. (Think reusing a Boeing 747 instead of throwing it away after each flight.) If these types of flights are cheap enough, Blue Origin hopes demand for them will explode.

The New Shepard heading back into the barn
Courtesy Blue Origin
The suborbital flights reach a middle ground between where planes can go and where satellites live, which means opportunities for all kinds of new scientific research. Plans have been hatched, for example, to test how stem cells and plants grow in this type of environment, along with bids to capture space microbes and bring them back to earth (because that never goes wrong in the movies). “You will come to us and do a contract and not a partnership,” Wagner said. “We would like to sell you a product. You will get your data back in about 9 minutes, from liftoff to landing.”

As for when any of this will happen, well, Blue Origin is mum. It has talked about doing far more complex orbital flights in 2018, but the suborbital business remains hush-hush. Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace have committed to launching suborbital flights in 2014 if all goes according to plan.

Blue Origin’s approach has been in stark contrast to that of SpaceX, the other big-time commercial space venture, funded and run by billionaire Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. When Musk started SpaceX in 2002, he was not as wealthy and very much needed to turn the company into a serious, for-profit endeavor. Bezos, fat cat that he is, has had the luxury of advancing Blue Origin at a slower pace and letting his team of 300 work in private. “We are the tortoise and not the hare in this race,” Wagner said.

Part of the dichotomy here also comes from the founders’ personalities. Musk tends to enjoy the limelight, while Bezos tends to abhor it. Or as one NASA official put it to me: “The world may watch Elon fly to Mars one day expecting him to be the first person there only to discover that a colony of Bezosians have secretly already set up shop.” (There’s lots more juicy details on the culture Bezos has driven at Blue Origin in The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon, the just-published book by Brad Stone.)

Tensions between the two space moguls have flared of late as their companies fight for space at a NASA-owned launchpad. Musk has used the squabble to highlight that SpaceX has flown successfully to the International Space Station, while Blue Origin has yet to get anywhere close. “If [Blue Origin does] 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,” Musk said during a recent interview with Space News. “Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”

That’s a bit more direct than Blue Origin and Wagner are willing to be at the moment. “I don’t have a price for you,” Wagner said. “I don’t have a product to sell yet. When we have a product, we will price it.” So there.

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