Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed the next big step of Blue Origin, his personal space rocket company. At the moment, the company is still toying with the New Shepard, a resuable launch system capable of reaching the edge of space and returning to the ground via a powered vertical landing.
Blue Origin aims to use the New Shepard for suborbital space tourism, with commercial flights expected to start as early as 2018. While this is a very nice feat, the real prize is to launch payloads into and beyond orbit - in this regard the New Shepard is a glorified proof-of-concept.
The New Glenn rocket - a reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle
Bezos finally shared a bit more about Blue Origin's future plans by revealing the design of the New Glenn, a big rocket that is nearly as tall as the iconic Saturn V launch vehicle and more than half a powerful.
The New Glenn is more powerful than SpaceX's Falcon 9, but will generate less thrust than what the Falcon Heavy is expected to be capable of. The maiden test flight of the Falcon Heavy was expected later this year, but after a Falcon 9 went full RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) during a static test fire on September 1st, it's uncertain when SpaceX will be back in action.
Blue Origin expects to launch the first New Glenn rocket before the end of this decade. Just like the Falcon series from SpaceX, the New Glenn has a reusable first stage but one of the key differences will be that Blue Origin will use methalox, a mix of methane and liquid oxygen, for its first stage. Methalox is less energy-dense, which means you need a bigger rocket, but it has a couple of advantages. Among other things, it burns cleaner so it should be better for rocket reusability.
The two-stage version of New Glenn has seven BE-4 engines and promises a sea-level thrust of 3.85 million pounds, significantly more than the 2.1 million pounds offered by the Delta IV Heavy, the most powerful rocket currently in operation. The future SpaceX Falcon Heavy on the other hand should offer thrust of around 5.1 million pounds, but that's still quite a bit less than the 7.5 million pounds produced by the old Saturn V moon rocket.
Future New Armstrong rocket to aim for the Moon?
As ARS Technica reports, the naming of the Blue Origin rockets holds some clues about Bezos' objectives. New Shepard was named after Alan Shepard, the first American to perform a suborbital flight, while John Glenn made the first orbital flight, hence the New Glenn. Bezos said a future rocket will be named New Armstrong, a hint at rockets capable of lunar destinations.
Bezos reiterated Blue Origin's goal in an e-mail today: "Our vision is millions of people living and working in space." And although he may have started small with his proof of concept vehicle, New Shepard, the scope of New Glenn 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 marked an incremental step toward bigger ambitions. Instead, he went for seven engines and 3.85 million pounds of thrust, nearly twice as powerful as any rocket flying today. Put another way, Blue Origin wants to go from a small, suborbital rocket to one that stands four times as tall and possesses 35 times the thrust. That is quite a leap.
Bezos didn't make any suggestions about how much his rocket launches will cost but it's clear the private space market will be an interesting adventure to watch. Blue Origin is not in a hurry, but just like SpaceX it has very exciting technology in its pipeline.
More exciting space news is expected later this month as SpaceX's Elon Musk will be speaking about his Mars architecture at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, Guadalajara Mexico, September 27, 2016.