On November 24, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s aerospace company Blue Origin boasted the first successful recovery of a rocket launched into space. Known as the New Shepard, the rocket reached the lower limits of the official definition of ‘space’ at about 100km above ground, before safely landing at exactly the same spot it was launched from, totally intact.
The record-breaking event contrasts with the failure of Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk’s own aerospace company, SpaceX, to successfully reland the Falcon 9 rocket, after several failures over the course of 2015. However, it was not long before SpaceX managed the feat themselves, as a Falcon 9 successfully set 11 commercial satellites on orbit before being safely recovered on Earth in December.
Both companies have been focusing on developing reusable rockets, which could potentially hold the key to making going to space drastically cheaper. Indeed, using rough figures, US government-owned Nasa’s Space Shuttle programme, which was discontinued in 2011, was able to launch rockets at a cost of about $200 million, having to build a new rocket every single time. By contrast, a Falcon 9 rocket costs $50 million to build, but if it becomes reusable indefinitely, this is a one time only expense.
In many ways, Jeff Bezos’s ‘victory’ over Musk invites an unfair comparison. The Falcon 9 is about twice the size of the New Shepard, reaches higher velocities, and attains orbital heights (in order to position satellites or reach the International Space Station at 400 km above ground, for example). This undoubtedly made landing the Falcon a tougher challenge.
In fact, while the record is Bezos’s to enjoy, the victory is largely symbolical. Despite triggering a series of biting (and entertaining) back and forth Twitter exchanges between Bezos and Musk (such as Musk taunting that: “It is important to clear up the distinction between ‘space’ and ‘orbit’”), the ‘private space race’ between the two rests on little more than superficial records and shaky comparisons.
Indeed the business objectives of the two companies are mostly unaligned. Bezos’s Blue Origin, with its New Shepard rocket, is looking to provide eccentric or daring multimillionaires with a taste of space at 100km above Earth. Musk’s targets with the Falcon 9, in contrast, are manifold and reflective of a somewhat larger perspective, rooted in routine launches to supply the International Space Station (backed by multi-billion dollar contracts with Nasa) and to bring satellites into orbit.
In the long run, SpaceX seeks to develop a satellite based internet provision service, send manned shuttles to the International Space Station (backed by Nasa, which has been dependent on Russia for this ever since the Space Shuttle program was ended in 2011), and, most excitingly perhaps, send people to colonise Mars.
Nonetheless, it is Blue Origin that has, as of now, made the strongest step towards rocket reusability, touted as a Holy Grail by the aerospace industry (because of its cost effectiveness), by successfully relaunching this month the rocket it had safely landed in November. Clearly, we are witnessing historic times for rocket science.
The boldness and vision of private entrepreneurs of the calibre of Musk and Bezos is setting the scene for a formidable rekindling of space related pursuits. After the limits of state funded programs, made all too clear in the late 90s and early 2000s, these men have the potential to bring space exploration within tantalising reach.
Image: Blue Origin