Bezos vs. Branson: Who is Winning the Race to Space?

SpaceShipTwo dumps water. (Credit: Virgin Galactic)

Clive Irving, senior consulting editor at Condé Nast Traveler, believes that Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have zoomed ahead of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic.

In his story, “Jeff Bezos Will Leave Richard Branson Behind in the Dust,” he writes

Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year.

But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver….

Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”


In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept….

Technically, New Shepard is the precursor of the much more ambitious New Glenn, Blue Origin’s multi-stage rocket program that will launch astronauts and satellites into orbit. (The Virgin Galactic design is an evolutionary dead end – it cannot be scaled up for orbital flight.) As he did with Amazon, Bezos has always had a very clear-eyed idea of what it would cost to get into the business, of the technical challenges, and of the time needed to master them.

It’s a good story that’s worth a read. I did notice one factual error: the tail stall and inverted spin that SpaceShipTwo experienced during a flight test occurred in 2011, not 2013.

California Considers Tax on Launches Within the State

A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket carrying the WorldView-4 spacecraft lifts off from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. (Credit: ULA)

California’s Franchise Tax Board is seeking public comment on a proposed new tax that would fall upon ULA, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and other companies launching spacecraft from within the state.

The levy would apply to companies “that generates more than 50 percent of its gross receipts from the provision of space transportation activity for compensation in a taxable year,” the proposal states. Space is defined as 62 statute miles (100 km) or more above Earth.

UK Unveils Spaceport Laws

LONDON (Department of Transport PR) — British scientists will be able to fly to the edge of space to conduct vital medical experiments under new powers unveiled this week.

Laws paving the way for spaceports in the UK will allow ‎experiments to be conducted in zero gravity which could help develop medicines.


Orbital Launch Statistics for 2016

The Soyuz MS-02 rocket is launched with Expedition 49 Soyuz commander Sergey Ryzhikov of Roscosmos, flight engineer Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and flight engineer Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Ryzhikov, Kimbrough, and Borisenko will spend the next four months living and working aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
The Soyuz MS-02 rocket is launched with Expedition 49 Soyuz commander Sergey Ryzhikov of Roscosmos, flight engineer Shane Kimbrough of NASA, and flight engineer Andrey Borisenko of Roscosmos, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. (Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Part 2 of 2

There were 85 orbital launches in 2016, not including the Falcon 9 that exploded on launch pad prior to a pre-flight engine test. The launches break down as follow:

  • United States: 22 (22-0)
  • China: 22 (20-1-1)
  • Russia: 19 (18-1)
  • Europe: 9 (9-0)
  • India: 7 (7-0)
  • Japan: 4 (4-0)
  • Israel: 1 (1-0)
  • North Korea: 1 (1-0)

For a more detailed description of these launches, please read US, China Led World in Launches in 2016.

Let’s look at launches by booster and spaceport and the flights that were required for human spaceflight.

Musk Predicts Falcon 9 Return to Flight in Mid-December


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told CNBC on Friday that investigators have found the root cause of the fire and explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 booster on Sept. 1. The company expects to resume launches by the middle of December.

Musk, confirming earlier discussion about the investigation, said the failure involved liquid helium being loaded into bottles made of carbon composite materials within the liquid oxygen tank in the rocket’s upper stage. This created solid oxygen, which Musk previously said could have ignited with the carbon composite materials. However, he did not go into that level of detail in his CNBC comments.

Roscosmos Publishes ISS Crew Rotations for 2017

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)
The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) experiment aboard the International Space Station. (Credit: NASA)



  • YURCHIKHIN, Fedor — on board engineer of ISS-51, commander of ISS-52, commander of Soyuz MS manned transportation spacecraft (ROSCOSMOS)
  • FISCHER, Jack — on board engineer of ISS-51, ISS-52, on board engineer-1 of Soyuz MS manned transportation spacecraft (NASA)


  • RYAZANSKY, Sergey — on board engineer of ISS-52, ISS-53, commander of Soyuz MS manned transportation spacecraft (ROSCOSMOS)
  • BRESNIK, Randolph — on board engineer of ISS-52, commander of ISS-53, onboard engineer-1 of Soyuz MS manned transportation spacecraft (NASA)
  • NESPOLI, Paolo — on board engineer of ISS-52, ISS-53, on board engineer-2 of Soyuz MS manned transportation spacecraft (ESA)


NASA Advisory Council Receives Updates on NASA Programs

NASA LOGOThe NASA Advisory Council has been meeting in Cleveland this week, receiving program updates from top agency officials. Below is a summary of the first two days based on Tweets by Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) and Marcia Smith (@SpcPlcyOnline). There are updates below on:

  • Commercial crew
  • Commercial cargo
  • International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion
  • NextSTEP
  • Deep-space human mission planning
  • SpaceX’s Red Dragon
  • Mars 2020
  • Blue Origin


Bezos Opens Up Blue Origin Factory for First TIme

Blue_Origin_EmblemOn Wednesday, Jeff Bezos gave a tour of the Blue Origin factory in Kent, Wash., to a select group of 11 journalists. It was the first time the company had opened up its factory to the media.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • There will be a fourth test of the New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule system soon;
  • Bezos said there will be an opportunity to witness a New Shepard flight later this year at the company’s test facility in Texas;
  • The New Shepard system flown in November was refurbished for a cost  “in the small tens of thousands of dollars” and re-launched in January;
  • Bezos says the company plans to rely the system until they lose it in an accident;
  • New Shepard will begin flying scientific payloads later this year;
  • The automated vehicle could begin flying test subjects in 2017, with space tourism flights to follow as soon as 2018;
  • An in-flight abort test is planned during which the New Shepard capsule will blast free from the launch vehicle at maximum dynamic pressure;
  • Six passengers will sit in recline seats, each facing a 3-foot tall large window to give them a view of space and Earth;
  • Passengers would be able to unstrap themselves to float around the capsule;
  • Bezos said the company will be thorough in testing New Shepard before placing anyone on board;
  • Blue Origin could eventually end up flying a small fleet of New Shepard vehicles dozens of times annually;
  • Bezos did not reveal pricing, but said thousands of people have registered interest in flying;
  • Blue Origin hopes to test its BE-4 engine by the end of this year;
  • The BE-4 engine will be used in United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, which is set to make its first flight in 2019;
  • Blue Origin also plans to use the BE-4 in its own launch vehicle, which is nicknamed “Very Big Brother”, beginning in 2020;
  • Bezos plans to reveal more details about the company’s rocket later this year;
  • The BE-4 engine will have 550,000 pounds of thrust, which is five times greater than the BE-3 motor used on New Shepard;
  • The BE-4 engine is being designed for a minimum of 25 uses;
  • The company has been quiet to avoid over promising and under delivering (“Space is really easy to overhype,” Bezos said);
  • The company’s logo features the motto Gradatim ferociter, which is Latin for “step by step, ferociously”, two tortoises representing the victory of the tortoise over the hare, and an hourglass symbolizing human mortality;
  • Blue Origin has 600 employees, with plans to grow to 1,000 within the next year;
  • Bezos has invested much more than 500 million in Blue Origin since he founded the company in 2000;
  • The founder’s goal is to spread humanity out into the solar system, making use of its vast resources and moving most heavy industry out into space;
  • Bezos says he is interested in Mars, but he believes the planet is a forbidding place that makes Antarctica looks temperate by comparison.


Jeff Bezos lifts curtain on Blue Origin rocket factory, lays out grand plan for space travel that spans hundreds of years

Jeff Bezos pulls back the curtain on his plans for space

Behind the curtain: Ars goes inside Blue Origin’s secretive rocket factory

Jeff Bezos Lifts Veil on His Rocket Company, Blue Origin

Sierra Nevada Keeps Expanding Dream Chaser Team

Dream Chaser (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)
Dream Chaser (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

SPARKS, Nev., Aug. 6, 2014 (SNC PR) – Sierra Nevada Corporation’s (SNC) Dream Chaser® Space System, a reusable commercial orbital transportation system, is progressing through its flight test program and critical design review. As SNC’s Dream Chaser program enters its next phase, SNC is pleased to announce its expanded Dream Chaser – Dream Team – which includes prominent heritage aerospace industry members, small and disadvantaged businesses, as well as university and international space agency partners. Between these additional organizations and its long-term members, SNC continues to build one of the most competent and capable space industry program teams in the world. The growing employment scope and economic impact of the Dream Chaser program now involves 32 states and over 50 congressional districts and is expected to continue to expand as the program matures.


The Risks of Airplane and Spacecraft Travel — By the Numbers

In the “UK Government Review of Commercial Spaceplane Certification and Operations Technical Report,” there is a fascinating section outlining the risks of aviation and spaceflight. It is worth quoting at length because it shows the risks people take in different types of flights, and the nearly complete lack of safety data involving the emerging field of space tourism.

The key excerpts are below. I’ve added emphasis to spotlight the key statistics.

Over the past hundred years, commercial aviation has evolved to the extent that, for public transport, operations involving ICAO-certified aircraft achieve a catastrophic failure rate better than 1×10-7. This means that catastrophic failure takes place less than once in every 10 million hours of flight.


A Closer Look at the UK’s Commercial Space Review

Following the release of the document, “UK Government Review of Commercial Spaceplane Certification and Operations: Summary and Conclusions,” almost all media attention focused on one element of the report: the 8 candidate sites for the nation’s first spaceport.

This laser focus is easy to understand. The fierce, tooth-and-nail competition to land some big government project will be fun to watch. And spaceports are super cool. Well, they are when space planes are actually flying to space. When like a decade goes by with people promising imminent spaceflights without a single one taking place, spaceports become a lot less cool.  (I’m looking at you…everybody in Mojave!)

But, I digress. I went through the 80-page document and the 321-page technical report its based on so you don’t have to. Why would I do this? Because you guys are the best! You’re very welcome.

Key excerpts follow with commentary as appropriate. Read away!


Generation Orbit, SPG Team Up for Smallsat Launcher

ATLANTA, December 21, 2012 (GO PR) —
Generation Orbit Launch Services, Inc. (GO) has entered into a strategic partnership with Sunnyvale, CA-based Space Propulsion Group, Inc. (SPG) to continue the development of its dedicated small satellite launch system, known as GOLauncher.


Space Access 12: FAA AST Chief Engineer Mike Kelly

Michael Kelly
Chief Engineer, Office of Commercial Spaceflight
Federal Aviation Administration
“Commercial Human Spaceflight: The Coming Safety Challenge

Changes at FAA

  • AST split in several offices, including chief engineer’s offic
  • Former astronaut Pamela Ann Melroy has been added as senior adviser for human spaceflight — flew on STS-92, 112 and 120 — previously serve as Deputy Program Manager for Space Exploration Initiatives at Lockheed Martin after leaving the astronaut corps
  • reorganizing field offices
  • adding a second position at Mojave, new positions at Wallops and JSC
  • Planned tech center with 50 people at KSC will not happen
  • Moritorium on regulations has been expanded to Oct. 1, 2015 — although FAA can propose rules if there is an accident