A New Competitor on the Commercial Space Scene

By Alexander Kosyakov

Last year, at the 67th International Astronautical Congress, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk unveiled his plans for the “BFR”, a massive new reusable rocket that would have been capable of putting heavy payloads into space and travel to the moon and beyond. The rocket was planned to have a booster stage with a diameter of 12 meters. This booster stage, the bottom-most portion of a rocket, would have housed 42 methane-powered engines to lift the behemoth off the launch pad and towards distant destinations such  as Mars.

Fast forward to September 29th, at this year’s International Aeronautical Congress in Australia, where Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to downscale the BFR to have a booster stage of 31 engines that would be 9 meters in diameter. However, Musk’s space venture remained optimistic, stating that it planned to begin work on the first BFR in the second quarter of 2018. At least two cargo spacecraft landings on Mars via the BFR are slated for 2022 as well as four more spacecraft, two of which being manned, on Mars in 2024.

Musk acknowledged the difficulties that SpaceX has had thus far with the Falcon Heavy, a rocket far smaller than the BFR that is years behind on its timeline. However, SpaceX appears to anticipate more success with the BFR as it declared plans to reroute all resources from SpaceX’s current Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy to the BFR. In the words of Musk, the BFR is not as much a revolutionary idea as it is a result of the recognition of the fact that, “…if we can build a system that cannibalizes our own products, [that] makes our own products redundant” (Space News).

Enter Blue Origin, who on September 26 announced at the Congress a third customer for its New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin is owned by billionaire Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos and for the past decade has been developing a potential space tourism business with its small, fully reusable New Shepard rocket that has been successfully tested and retested at Blue Origin’s facilities in the Texas desert. Blue Origin has steadily been expanding its ambitions, building an immense factory at Cape Canaveral that is now almost complete and ready to manufacture New Glenn rockets. These new launch systems will be capable of taking large payloads and people into earth orbit and will dwarf SpaceX’s Falcon family of boosters.

The business deal that Blue Origin announced involved the Thai space venture Mu Space that seeks to expand mobile communications networks in southern Asia. As the chief executive of Mu Space put it, “We’ve decided to go with Blue Origin because we’re impressed with the company’s vision and engineering approach” (Space News). The New Glenn booster stage will be propelled by seven of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, which are powered by liquefied natural gas and produced in-house by the company in an attempt to end the American space industry’s reliance on Russian-made RD-180 rocket engines. United Launch Alliance, a joint space venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, has already shown interest in using the BE-4 in its new Vulcan heavy-lift rocket.

Speaking about the innovative engine, Blue Origin President Robert Meyerson said at the conference that the “BE-4 has also seen measurable progress this year.” He did not mention an incident in May when Blue Origin lost an instrumentation system that fueled the engine during test-stand experimentation. Blue Origin’s Twitter comment on the incident was that such an event is “not unusual during development” (Space News).

Despite such a setback, Blue Origin is set to join the vanguard of the American space industry with the New Glenn while SpaceX continues to come up with breakthroughs of its own. This new push in the American commercial space sector for cheaper, more versatile technologies is helping to keep the United States competitive in a resurgence of global enthusiasm for human space travel. The Chinese government has invested vast resources in aggrandizing its space program. Meanwhile, Russia is making an attempt to reinvigorate a largely stagnating national space initiative by building a new launch pad in its far-eastern territories.

The future of American space policy is less clear, however, that that of the international community. Prior to the last couple of years, the trends in America indicated NASA taking on the role of scientific study, leaving human and cargo transportation to private companies. However, NASA received Congressional approval last May to develop its Orion crewed space-capsule for its massive new Space Launch System (SLS) proposal—a rocket capable of taking astronauts to the moon and Mars. The SLS has already missed several key timelines, though, so it will be interesting to see how things will pan out in America with regards to space, especially with Blue Origin now stepping into the heavy launch ring with New Glenn.