It has occurred to me in recent days that the significance Blue Origin’s landing of its New Shepard rocket and capsule last month has been totally misconstrued by the public, press and most of the commentators on this blog. Now, I don’t really blame them for this; I blame Jeff Bezos.
The Amazon.com billionaire immediately took to Twitter to trumpet the achievement and to tweak rival Elon Musk, whose company had so far failed to successfully return a first stage after launch. This prompted a series of Tweets back from Elon denigrating Blue Origin’s achievement and pointing out how comparatively easy it was compared to returning a Falcon 9 stage intact.
The battle of the billionaires died down for a few weeks. Then on Monday, SpaceX actually succeeded at landing its first stage back at the Cape, and the whole argument arose anew as Bezos congratulated his rival with a backhanded compliment: “Welcome to the club!”
It’s not that I don’t like the sight of two billionaires with enormous bank accounts and galaxy sized egos battling it out over who has the better reusable rocket. I love it. It’s great for the industry, and highly entertaining to boot. But, this amazing colossal food fight distracts from the real narrative we should be focusing on.
The truth is, it’s not Bezos vs. Musk at the moment. It’s Bezos vs. Branson.
Eleven years ago after SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, Richard Branson and Burt Rutan stood at the Mojave spaceport and declared the opening of the space frontier for the masses. (Or at least that part of humanity that could afford a $200,000 ticket).
“[X Prize Founder] Peter Diamandis’s dream of having affordable space transportation. This is happening very soon,” Burt Rutan said at the time.
Branson said Virgin Galactic would begin commercial suborbital flights in a mere three years. Rutan promised SpaceShipTwo would be at least 100 times safer than any spacecraft that had ever flown. Virgin added a zero to that estimate and said it would be a thousand times safer than conventional ground-based rockets.
Five hundred people would fly in the first year. Thousands — then tens of thousands — would eventually fly. Ticket prices would drop four fold. And then there would be trips to orbital hotels and around the moon. And eventually Virgin would provide safe, routine and affordable hypersonic passenger service between Earth’s great cities. London to Tokyo in only two hours!
Diamandis, who developed the idea for the prize, declared that a new era of space travel had begun.
“The rules for the Ansari X Prize competition were really designed so at the end we have a new generation of spaceships designed to carry you and I into space,” X Prize founder Peter Diamandis enthused. “It’s our vision and our desire to make sure that space is opened up to the public irreversibly.”
This was an odd claim in that none of the other teams competing for the prize came remotely close to producing a vehicle that could win. Virtually all of them faded into obscurity after SpaceShipOne claimed the $10 million award.
The prize undoubtedly inspired a lot of people, but its technological legacy was very limited. Blue Origin, founded in 2000, was not one of the companies that competed for the prize. Bezos’ inspiration had been a government program called the Delta Clipper.
But, no matter. Surely the dynamic duo of Burt and Sir Richard would succeed.
Well, not so much. A funny thing happened on the way to the future. Nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Lots of things happened. Vehicles were built and tested. Enormous sums of money spent. A colossally expensive spaceport was built in the middle of nowhere. A spaceship crashed. And four Scaled Composites employees lost their lives.
The future just didn’t turn out the way everyone predicted. Instead of Branson leading the world into a new era of commercial suborbital spaceflight, Bezos got to suborbital space first. And he stands a good chance of poaching at least some of Virgin Galactic’s customers who have grown inpatient with a decade of promises, accidents and meager results.
It’s a development that Branson might not have seen coming. The British billionaire had dismissed the possibility of being surpassed by anyone in an interview with Wired magazine that ran as part of a story published in March 2013.
“In this field we don’t really have any competitors,” Branson said. “Land based take-off — they can never compete with us for people going into space. And spaceship companies where people have to parachute back to Earth — that’s the old technology. I may be being naïve — there may be somebody doing something very secretive which we don’t know about — but my guess is that we are five or six years ahead of any competitor.”
Bezo’s New Shepard system is a new twist on some old technology. It’s conventional in that it takes off from a launch pad and only lofts a suborbital capsule that descends under parachute. In that way, it’s not that different from the Mercury-Redstone system that launched Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom into space in 1961. And it’s not as elegant of a solution as SpaceShipTwo.
However, New Shepard has three key advantages. It is much larger than the Mercury capsule, allowing up to six passengers to fly and float around in microgravity. The entire system is reusable. And there is a clear path from New Shepard to larger reusable rockets and orbital spacecraft that Bezos wants to produce.
But, orbital flights — and direct competition with Musk and SpaceX — lies some years in the future. The key point now is that Blue Origin has achieved something that Virgin Galactic has not been able to do in 11 years. This fact has apparently some consternation over at Branson’s company.
“11 years in the making and a competitor just beat Galactic to space. VG has failed,” wrote one anonymous Virgin Galactic employee from Mojave in a company review on Glassdoor. “Having another company reach the boundary of space before us should be seen as nothing more than a massive failure. The project has become so mismanaged and people are constantly being promoted for no real reason, and the problems continually get worse. Perhaps the Board of Directors will now see where the problems stem from, and finally rid the company of its CEO, President and Senior Managers, and recruit those who are actually qualified to run this operation.”
After more than a decade of hype, it looks like there is an actual race in suborbital space. I can’t imagine Sir Richard is all that happy about it.