Right now, America is in the midst of a space race between competing private spaceflight companies owned by brilliant billionaires.
The prize is a chance to make history by being the first to usher in a new era of reusable rockets that can reduce the cost of spaceflight and, ultimately, land humans on Mars and then re-launch them back home.
Currently leading the way are Blue Origin — founded by Jeff Bezos — and SpaceX — founded by Elon Musk.
At the moment, SpaceX is ahead with its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets, but Blue Origin recently completed a test that shows it means business and could become a serious competitor in the next three years.
An important business venture
Key to both companies are the monster engines that power their rockets. And on Nov. 24, Blue Origin proved, for the first time, that they can successfully build, launch, fly, and retrieve the BE-3 engines that give life to their New Shepard space vehicle.
Perhaps most excited about the flight — besides Blue Origin — is the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has a lot invested in Bezos’ spaceflight company.
“We are very happy for Blue’s success last week which demonstrates Blue’s technical capabilities and commitment to spaceflight,” ULA told Business Insider over email.
Formed in 2006, ULA is a launch service provider under the joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Boeing Defence, Space & Security.
For years, they have cornered the market on US government launches, but SpaceX’s low-cost services and impending reusable capabilities has recently challenged that.
So, earlier this year, ULA selected rising SpaceX competitor Blue Origin to build the next generation of monster BE-4 engines to power the Vulcan rocket, which they are currently gathering funding for development.
“Our Vulcan rocket with BE-4 engines will fly in 2019,” ULA told Business Insider. “Our baseline plan is for the Vulcan booster to fly booster with two, BE-4 engines each, but ULA is also carrying Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine as a backup.”
Blue Origin vs. SpaceX engines
Blue Origin has not yet flown its BE-4 engines (shown below). However, it recently completed its 100th ground test, calling the test series “a key milestone” in the engine’s development. And it plans to have the engine ready for flight by 2017.
While the BE-4 engine is of a different design than the less powerful BE-3 engine that flew on Nov. 24, the flight’s success is a testament to Blue Origin’s spaceflight abilities.
In addition, the BE-4 engines will each generate 550,000 pounds of thrust — the propulsive force a rocket uses to get to space. In comparison, each of SpaceX’s latest, upgraded Merlin engines, which power the Falcon 9 rocket (and are shown below) generate 170,000 pounds of thrust.
The ULA Vulcan rocket will be what is called a heavy-launch vehicle, capable of ferrying extremely heavy loads into space — a task that requires an enormous amount of rocket engine power.
Strapped with two BE-4 engines, it will launch with 1.1 million pounds of thrust and carry payloads of up to 17.3 metric tons (38,000 pounds) to low-earth orbit — where rockets go to transport payloads to the International Space Station.
By comparison, SpaceX’s next-generation heavy-launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy, will use essentially three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. Each Falcon 9 contains 9 Merlin engines.
The Falcon Heavy is currently under construction at SpaceX and will generate 3.96 million pounds of thrust and lift up to 117,000 pounds into low-earth orbit. Its first demo flight, which was supposed to take place this year, was re-scheduled for spring 2016.
Race to reusability
Ultimately, the price of launching materials, and eventually people, on these rockets will largely depend on one thing: Whether or not they can be reused.
If only one of these companies can pull it off, then it could revolutionise the spaceflight business.
Both Blue Origin and SpaceX have demonstrated that their BE-3 and Merlin engines can be flown to recover a rocket after launch.
However, neither company has yet to launch an orbital rocket to space — one capable of transporting payloads to low-earth orbit — and retrieve it.
This is the next big step.
And SpaceX will try its next attempt to achieve that hurdle this month. As for Blue Origin, its next major move will be to send a rocket into orbit — higher than where it has currently flown.
Right now, the company is working on upgrades to its BE-3 engines and testing its BE-4 engines to accomplish this.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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