Missing the Significance of Blue Origin’s Landing Milestone

80 Comments

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).

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee's of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt's wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its "mothership", WhiteKnightTwo over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Mark Greenberg)

Sir Richard Branson hugs designer Burt Rutan as they are surrounded by employee’s of Virgin Galactic, The SpaceShip Company and Scaled Composites watch as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip2 streaks across the sky under rocket power, its first ever since the program began in 2005. Burt’s wife Tonya Rutan is at right taking their photo. The spacecraft was dropped from its “mothership”, WhiteKnightTwo over the Mojave, CA area, April 29, 2013 at high altitude before firing its hybrid power motor. (Credit: Mark Greenberg)

“[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.”

Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

Peter Diamandis and Burt Rutan on stage after SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X Prize on Oct. 4, 2004.

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.

 Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

Sir Richard Branson and daughter, Holly, look through the window of a SpaceShipTwo shell. (Photo credit: Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic)

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.

Brig. Gen. Steven Garland, 14th Air Force vice commander, left, provides remarks at a Blue Origin media event held at Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Sept 15, 2015. (Credit: USAF/Matthew Jurgens)

Brig. Gen. Steven Garland, 14th Air Force vice commander, left, provides remarks at a Blue Origin media event held at Space Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, Sept 15, 2015. (Credit: USAF/Matthew Jurgens)

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.

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    I’m not defending Jeff’s “Welcome to the Club” tweet. It’s not my style and I wouldn’t have said it. But, I disagree that Blue’s landing video was “FUD”. I also don’t read his November 24th tweet as a knock at SpaceX. Their rockets were finding that tiny barge in the middle of the gigantic Atlantic ocean, so obviously they knew how to control their rocket.

  • Douglas Messier

    They talked to SpaceX. They were talking to a lot of people.

  • windbourne

    Yup. Same thing that I have been saying.
    So many ppl were missing the point on this. Hopefully, they will pay attention to your post.
    BUT, in 2-3 years time, Spacex will have a real space race going with BO.
    Hopefully, others jump up on that as well.

    What is really needed though, is that NASA must get the 2 human launchers going and ideally, will help SNC work on their human launcher. From that, we need multiple companies that will do space stations in LEO and push for the moon. And yes, it should be private space pushing for the moon, along with NASA help.

    NASA absolutely should NOT focus on going to the moon. Private Space can handle getting to space, dealing with space stations, and getting to the moon. Plenty of nations will pay to go to the Moon AND Mars. And i have no doubt that as price comes down, plenty of business will jump on mining and other ideas. Right now, few are going to space because the ROI is not possible due to such high costs. But, if we have multiple companies jumping into this, then costs will continue to come down.

  • justchaz

    Heh, once again, 2015 airline industry has something to say about a 1903 argument about economic and practical operations snake oil. There was something to say for the flat earth society, for a while, and I trust the term exponential existed then too…

  • windbourne

    Doug has had plenty of barbs to throw at all of private space. ABout the only one that he has not is XCOR, but there is an honest reason for that.
    And to be fair, I used to back VG, but Doug has produced a large number of facts about them that shows how poorly they are ran. Over and over, VG has issues that they refuse to fix.

    In addition, over on previous postings, others have been blasting BO due to comparing to SpaceX, and as Doug correctly points out, that is the wrong comparison. The right one is BO vs. VG, though he misses XCOR on this one.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually you have it backwards. ICBMs travel so fast because of the laws of physics require them to. That is what
    made them attractive as an alternative to bombers, along with the difficulty of interception. And the same laws apply to intercontinental passenger rockets.

    Also the energy requirements for ICBMs and Intercontinental passenger rockets are nearly the same as for orbital systems, again because of the unbreakable laws of Newtonian physics. The stress of re-entry is also similar. So the cost for a ticket from London to Sydney will be about the same as one into orbit. Perhaps even more since you need to cover the costs of two operational spaceports for the service to work. This is why intercontinental passenger rockets proposals are viewed as “snake oil” by those who actually understand the physics and economics of rocket launch.

    In theory any SSTO or TSTO could function as an intercontinental passenger rocket, but the economics make it
    impractical. As the SST showed folks are willing to pay for speed, but only up to a point. That is viewed in the same category as the SST and Atomic Bomber. Both are possible to build technically, but any advantages don’t offset the
    large economic costs and operational problems associated with them.

    Also remember Sir Richard Branson’s initial success and wealth came from the entertainment and his strength is as a showman to promote his ventures. As I noted this is usually enough to give Virgin Brands a competitive advantage in mature industries like airlines and railroads where experienced CEO’s are available although even here he often fails occasionally. Virgin Drinks was a major failure as were Virgin Clothing and Virgin Cars. All were industries which he failed to understand and also failed to find good CEOs to run the ventures.

    VG falls well into the latter category since he failed to find managers that understand the industry, placed a bet on
    Burt Rutan who is great at designing air frames but doesn’t seem to have the same level of understanding about rockets. Sir Richard is doing his traditional role as master showman hyping VG, but the senior managers have not been able to
    keep up with his hype since as an immature industry with the technology not in place yet. Add to it he is stuck with a very Rube Goldberg design, one that was just good enough to win the Ansari X-Prize and it is no surprise it has been so
    long. Really, if it wasn’t for the publicity it adds to the Virgin name I expect he would have cut his losses a while ago.

  • ThomasLMatula

    There is no definite knowing the Sun will rise tomorrow, but past projections are useful for forecasting it will 🙂

    But if you studied classic business failures for years as part of your teaching the lessons to student you would see VG is likely to be a classic example and a great future case study 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, the second Ryan NYP crashed in Japan after a number of flights. Most likely the Japanese military studied in it detail first 🙂

    Ryan did produce an airliner based on the Ryan NYP, which in turn was based on the very successful Ryan M-2 mail plane. But the Ryan B-1 was not very successful. It was a surviving example of the Ryan B-1 used in the 1956 movie “Spirit of St. Louis”.

    It would have been logical to have produced a second SS1 air frame to test, or even the originally proposed pilot only version, but logical decisions rarely made with folks are buying the hype and feeling over confident as was the case with the Ansari X-Prize.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Sorry, but that is the classic defense of a hype master. There is a difference between reviewing what is possible in the short term and what requires multiple technical revolutions over decades to accomplish.

    VG is something that is in the here and now, not decades in the future, although perhaps at pace they are going 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    In the Lynx you at least have a chance to survive when something goes wrong. The market will indeed tell if VG’s $300 million investment was worth it. But first there is the little matter of getting it to work. My guess is that if they do roll it out in February as planned it will be another 3 years before service starts. They have a lot of issues with the design to work out not to mention confidence to restore.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Boy, are you living in a dream world, like the projections the folks at the SFF used to make. Remember the one about DHL doing suborbital transaltantic flights in 2016 they tried to sell to the folks in North Carolina? Statements like that don’t benefit space commerce, they just keep folks seeing it as something to laugh at.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Breaking even is very unlikely. Look at the numbers $300 million invested. That would take 1200 passengers if there operational costs and time value of money were zero. Break even is more likely at 2500-3000 passengers. That is about 12- 15 years of flights…

  • mfck

    Disagreeing without any counter arguments has little appeal, duscussion-wise, but I think I know why you do. Let me ease my characterisation a bit – it was disingenuous to a level asymptotically aproaching FUD. It was consciously made that way. And it wasn’t a landing video. If they just released the landing video, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    My apologies, but I have no idea what the 24th tweet is about. The reasons to memorize Jeff’s tweets by date are lost on me.

    To sum my rant up: The recent exchange of tweets and their context showed that Bezos is a mass market businessman and a player, while Musk is an engineer and a visionary

  • Chief Galen Tyrol

    “Disagreeing without any counter arguments has little appeal”. Mea culpa, I’m a tad distracted today. Have a pleasant afternoon.

  • PK Sink

    64 comments and still growing. You sure got the geeks going with this one.

  • Smokey_the_Bear

    I haven’t heard a peep from Branson, since Blue Origin accomplished sub-orbit, before them. lol

    Not to go back to the Elon VS Bezos show, but watch this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=esTKcTWKA0w

    I swear, Bezos sounds like an Elon clone, they are wanting the same thing, if Bezos mentions living on Mars, I swear I’m going to have to claw at his neck to rip the mask off to prove to the world IT’S THE SAME GUY! lololol

  • justchaz

    Don’t you get tired of first disagreeing then having to eat your words? The laws of physics require ICBMs to travel so fast? How fast? Wow. So if I launched three F9 based ballistic missiles above the atmosphere and wanted re-entry in The Sahara, The Indian Ocean and The Pacific, I could not achieve each by varying the speed of the missiles? How many ways do you think I could achieve varied speeds on each of my missiles? What is this talk? I really should and just might stop here.

  • justchaz

    Okay forecaster. When it goes past the Karman line what should we then make of your forecast? Lean in, please. By all means do.

  • justchaz

    Heh. He should remit some of his earnings to moi, ici, tres vite. Ahem!

  • justchaz

    LOL. You have indeed descended into your abyss. Second time you have lost control in a discussion and twice in this one. Not your boy. This one is DOA. Too easy.

  • ThomasLMatula

    When is the big question. It hasn’t come close so far. But the real key is when will they start hauling tourists.

    But what of your forecasts it will? But then that is the advantage of hiding who you are, you don’t have to be accountable….

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually you could also achieve it by varying the azimuths and directions they are launched in. Probably easier since ICBMs are solid fuel, but I am sure you knew that 🙂

    Because costs rule in business. Why do you think they used the excuse of the first operational accident to pull the plug on the Concorde? Because it had somehow just became unsafe? And why do you think no one has rushed to replaced it over the last four decades? Think about it, it now takes longer to go from NY to Paris then it did a decade ago…

    The Fairey Rotodyne is another classic example of something technically practical that was a failure economically. Aviation history is full of them.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u4Z1UnRZDyo

    I am sure Sir Richard would love to get your money for the VG, as it has become a money pit 🙂

    Intercontinental passenger service will come after orbital HSF matures to the point it drives the cost down to make it practical. But even then the super rich are likely to balk at paying $10 million a seat just to get to Sydney a day sooner…

  • ThomasLMatula

    So you are just a troll looking for points and not serious about what you post. I thought so 🙂

  • ThomasLMatula

    But again the common thread is that the ones which succeed did so because the investors did their research and prepared their business models based on it. While those that failed did so because they didn’t look beyond the hype. It is a pattern that holds through one business revolution after another.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are seeking to build VTVL TSTO RLV systems, they are just approaching if from opposite directions.

    Elon Musk choose to head straight for orbit, sell the service, and then make the elements reusable. Straight to the point but expensive given how much NASA money he has burned through on the way.

    Jeff Bezos decided to follow the old DC-X path. First fully reusable suborbital, sell the service, then do an orbital system. Slower but also less expensive, and with less dependence on NASA.

    XCOR is following a similar path to orbit but selected HTHL. They started with smaller rocker planes (EZ Rocket, Rocket Racer), then high altitude one (Lynx). Then learning how to make it go higher and faster. A slower path but one which fits their finances. I expect the TSTO RLV that emerges will be similar to the original vision for the Shuttle before its budget was reduced. But they are probably closest to Jeff Bezos approach, but just focusing on HTHL versus VTVL.

    Sir Richard Branson is the odd one out although he is going for a HTHL system its one with limited opportunities for expansion since it is air launched. Really it is the most difficult of the different systems and the most likely to be a dead end system.

    So actually Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are suitable comparisons long term although Jeff Bezos early market puts him in competition with XCOR and VG.

  • JS_faster

    They are both dorks but Bezos has seen “The Right Stuff” and “Top Gun” to many times.

  • justchaz

    Heh.
    Good. Made you eat your words again haven’t I? Now maybe you will stop this farcical struggle against the inevitable.
    I took care of the cookie cutter approach to innovation argument.
    I took care of the SS2 as more ideal tourism vehicle argument.
    You have also agreed that intercontinental space travel is technically achievable, today.

    The last argument you are left with, the cost argument, I will leave you to fight with. It is capable and does not need me, albeit me, several times reiterating how history has proven your pronouncements of impossibility, wrong time and time again.

    I am sure to give you another opportunity in the future, at the rate of your pronouncements. Buh bye.

  • PK Sink

    Great post. I’d say you’re right on all counts.

  • PK Sink

    “To sum my rant up: The recent exchange of tweets and their context showed that Bezos is a mass market businessman and a player, while Musk is an engineer and a visionary”

    Excellent rant summation.

  • Thanks for that. If VG had used liquid fueled rockets at the beginning they would already be flying suborbitally.

    Bob Clark