Bezos Plans New Rocket in Effort to Match Rivals in Orbit

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  • Amazon founder boasts slow progress in wake of Musk setback
  • Announcement comes 11 days after SpaceX launchpad blast

Here's How Elon Musk Plans to Send Tourists to Space Inc. founder Jeff Bezos unveiled ambitions for space exploration beyond providing a ride for tourists by announcing that Blue Origin LLC plans to build a more powerful rocket capable of launching commercial satellites and flying people deeper into space.

Bezos said his company has been developing the reusable, vertical-landing booster for four years and expects to make its first launch by the end of the decade. It’s named New Glenn after John Glenn, the former astronaut and U.S. senator who was the first American to orbit Earth. The three-stage version of the rocket is capable of flying farther than Blue Origin’s New Shepard, which is designed to reach the edge of space to provide tourists a few minutes of weightlessness.

The announcement reveals Bezos’ ambitions go beyond expensive space tourism flights, positioning Blue Origin to launch satellites in competition with Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital ATK Inc. It can take a year or longer to get satellites used in agriculture, weather monitoring and other industries into lower Earth orbit due to a lack of capacity, and Blue Origin is setting its sights on that market, said Joe Landon, chairman of Space Angels Network, which invests in space companies.

“There’s a bottleneck to get satellites into orbit,” Landon said. “It’s pretty exciting to see how big and bold their plan is.”

Bezos, in what appeared to be a tweak at Musk, said Blue Origin’s mascot is the tortoise and its motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” a Latin phrase that he translated as step by step, ferociously. Musk’s SpaceX suffered a major setback 11 days ago with the explosion of its Falcon 9 rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, before a test launch.

“We believe ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast,’” Bezos said in an e-mail from Blue Origin announcing the new rocket booster. “In the long run, deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps.”

Bezos tweeted an image showing two New Glenn rockets towering above Falcon rockets made by SpaceX. Bezos and Musk have sparred publicly on Twitter about the significance of their accomplishments. Musk has been the bolder of the two, launching larger rockets carrying bigger payloads such as telecommunications satellites into space, while Bezos’ company has focused on small rockets that can take brief flights into suborbital space.

The Blue Origin announcement is a signal that Bezos is once again playing the long game, applying to space exploration the same slow and steady techniques that made Amazon the market leader in e-commerce. He said the New Glenn builds on lessons Blue Origin learned about re-usability with its New Shepard, which has soared to suborbital space and returned to Earth intact four times.

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step,” Bezos said.