After Blue Origin completed the third flight of its New Shepard launch system on Saturday, the spaceflight community applauded the effort. And on Sunday, after video emerged showing the dramatic firing of its engines just before the rocket would have struck the ground, the response was again approbation. This third test in a little more than four months demonstrated that Blue Origin has continued to progress toward its goal of launch, land, and repeat—the holy grail of low-cost spaceflight.
But among the cheers were also a few mutterings. What does it matter if all Jeff Bezos is going to do is take rich people on joy rides, some said. Or, if researchers want to do suborbital experiments, can’t they get those done in conventional aircraft flying parabolas? Others have complained that New Shepard’s propulsion module is relatively small and has only a single engine, and flying to suborbital space requires a fraction of the energy that getting into orbit does. In short, some critics say Bezos is just dabbling at the edges of space, not doing the hard stuff of going all the way.
This may all be true, but it misses the point. Much like Mercury represented America’s first tentative steps into outer space, so does New Shepard represent only a beginning for the company. New Shepard, after all, is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space who rode inside a Mercury capsule. It may or may not succeed, but Blue Origin aspires to be much more. It’s trying to build a scalable, reusable architecture from the ground up, and that takes time.
Reusability is the thing
Earlier this year, Ars visited Blue Origin’s rocket factory, and we had a chance to discuss the company’s ambitions with Bezos on Blue Origin’s factory floor. Bezos explained that he has built his company, from the beginning, around lowering the cost of access to space. Initially, he hoped to find a better way than chemical rockets to blast people off the surface of the Earth, but as yet no technology exists. And so Blue Origin has focused on making chemical rockets cost as little as possible, and that means reusing them.