Friday, December 04, 2015

Blue Origin vs. Space-X

          By Brian Orlotti

On November 24th, Blue Origin announced that it had successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital vehicle 100 km to the edge of space and landed it safely back on Earth. Though the launch marks a key milestone for both the NewSpace industry and spaceflight in general, reactions to it have been mixed. These reactions highlight fundamental differences between the NewSpace industry and old-style space advocacy.

"400 very happy rocket scientists" watch the landing of the Blue Origin first stage at Blue Origin HQ on November 23th, 2015. Screen shot and video c/o Blue Origin.

Built by Blue Origin, the Washington-based firm begun by founder Jeff Bezos, the New Shepard is a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL) reusable rocket intended for suborbital space tourist flights as well as suborbital science payloads. The New Shepard vehicle is named in honour of the first US astronaut to reach space, Alan Shepard. Founded in 2000, Blue Origin was a dark horse for the first decade of its existence, but has steadily grown into a powerful rival to the NewSpace industry’s current champion, SpaceX.

In 2013, Blue Origin attempted to block SpaceX’s leasing of Kennedy Space Center’s historic Launch Pad 39A (the launch point for the Apollo moon missions as well as the Space Shuttles). Though SpaceX was eventually granted the lease in 2014, Blue Origin announced in September 2015 that it had been granted a lease for launch facilities at the nearby Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

In September 2014, following the ancient formula of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ Blue Origin entered into a partnership with SpaceX arch-rival United Launch Alliance (ULA). Under the terms of the partnership, Blue Origin will produce its BE-4 engines for use in ULA’s announced competitor to SpaceX’s Falcon rockets, the Vulcan.

Here's the real difference between the Blue Origin New Sheppard and SpaceX Falcon-9 rockets As outlined in the November 24th, 2015 Business Insider article, "There's a major difference between SpaceX and Blue Origin that makes them incomparable," they're designed for two different purposes. New Shepard is a one stage rocket which can generate approximately  110,000 pounds of thrust and is optimized for suborbital launch and first stage soft landing and reuse. The latest Falcon 9 rocket is a two stage vehicle which can generate 1.3 million pounds of thrust and is optimized for launching satellites into orbit, but not for landing and reuse of the first stage. It's worth noting that both companies are working on what the other is already capable of doing. Graphic c/o Business Insider using screen grabs from SpaceX and Blue Origin YouTube videos.

Following the successful New Sheppard flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sent out a tweet congratulating Bezos and his team. Musk shortly followed up with a series of tweets in which he downplayed the flight’s significance. Among his criticisms, Musk claimed:

  • Reaching suborbital space (as the New Sheppard did) and achieving Earth orbit (as SpaceX’s Falcon rockets do) are two different things, the latter requiring vastly greater speeds (and so, more fuel) as well as posing different engineering challenges.
  • SpaceX’s Falcon rockets achieved suborbital vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) in 2013 and orbital VTOL in 2014.

Musk’s arguments, while technically correct, do not change the fact that Blue Origin’s vehicle landed successfully while SpaceX’s own vertical landing attempts have fallen just short of success. Musk, no doubt bitter at being upstaged, is rumoured to be planning a counterattack later this month.

According to the December 1st, 2015 article, "SpaceX May Try Land-Based Rocket Landing This Month, NASA Official Says," SpaceX may move up its next attempt at vertical launch and landing to later this month. The official also said that SpaceX, doubtless trying to stack the deck in its favour, will aim to land its rocket on land rather than the sea-based drone ship used in its last attempt.

Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos aren't the only eccentric, rich inventors who ever disagreed publicly and tried to make money off their differences. As outlined in the August 1st, 2011 Space Review article, "VASIMR and a new war of the currents," we’ve been here many times before, most memorably during the great “war of the currents” beginning in the 1880s. This battle over the future shape of the then embryonic electrical industry pitted American entrepreneur George Westinghouse and the eccentric but gifted inventor Nikola Tesla against Thomas Edison and his direct current technology Graphic c/o Topicalsquable.

Reactions from space advocates on Facebook and various websites has been mixed, with many agreeing that the New Sheppard’s landing is unimportant since it was ‘only’ suborbital. Some have taken it a step further, saying that both SpaceX and Blue Origin’s vehicles are simply rehashes of the McDonnell Douglas DC-X (aka Delta Clipper) spacecraft of the 1990s and so NASA itself should be developing the technology rather than private firms.

Such nitpicking and doctrinal squabbling among space advocates is nothing new. In the four or so decades of its existence, space advocacy has been rent by many schisms; the Moon vs Mars, solid versus liquid fuels, government-funded versus privately funded space programs, space-as-pristine-scientific-realm versus space development. These schisms have done much to keep the space advocacy movement tiny, incoherent and inconsequential.

Brian Orlotti.
Among the entrepreneurs of the NewSpace industry, however, such bickering and one-upsmanship can move things forward by spurring the drive to achieve.

Like the railroad tycoons of old, this clashing of egos will lay the foundations of the future. 

Brian Orlotti is a network operations centre analyst at Shomi, a Canadian provider of on-demand internet streaming media and a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

1 comment:

  1. kind of sad, but has the ring of truth.. :-) exciting times :-)


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