2015 is shaping up to be an extremely exciting time for the future of commercial spaceflight, which will be built upon the backbone of revolutionary 21st Century rockets. Private American space companies Blue Origin and SpaceX are paving the way.
Blue Origin, which was created by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, successfully launched its “New Shepard” space vehicle for the first time on April 29. The vehicle was named after Alan Shepard, who became the second human and first American to enter space 44 years ago.
Two weeks earlier, on April 14, Elon musk’s SpaceX attempted to land one of its Falcon 9 rockets on a floating platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
Both events were significant tests in the race to build a fleet of revolutionary reusable rockets. With such a fleet, companies could launch the same rocket many times over instead building rockets that they only use once and crash land in the ocean, which is common practice for many current space companies like Arianespace.
But there’s a major difference between Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Falcon 9:
New Shepard generates about 10% the power of a Falcon 9 and it cannot transport humans — or anything else for that matter — to the International Space Station. SpaceX, however, has been transporting food, water, and other supplies to the ISS since May 2012. And we’ll need to use powerful rockets as transportation vehicles if we ever want to reach and colonize other planets like Mars.
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket — meaning it has two parts — whereas Blue Origin’s is a single-stage rocket. The benefit of a single-stage rocket is that it’s smaller, lighter, cheaper to build, cheaper to launch, and less complicated to fly.
Despite these advantages, they’re also the reason Blue Origin’s latest rocket won’t be transporting supplies or astronauts to the ISS. Ever. (SpaceX is in agreement with NASA to launch astronauts in space by 2017.)
That’s because a two-stage rocket generates far more power. To be specific: New Shepard generates about 110,000 pounds of thrust — the propulsive force a rocket uses to get to space. The latest Falcon 9 version, by comparison, generates 1.3 million pounds of thrust.
The current version of New Shepard is designed for what is called suborbital spaceflight, where the rocket reaches space but is not high enough or fast enough to place its spacecraft into a complete orbit around the Earth. That’s something that must be done in order to dock with the ISS and to get to the moon.
Blue Origin is currently working on a more powerful engine that could boost future rockets into higher, orbital space, but that engine is still under development according to Blue Origin’s website.
During the April 29 Blue Origin rocket launch, the rocket was deemed unusable for another flight. But very little is known about what specifically destroyed the rocket except what Bezos describes in the company’s blog:
“Of course one of our goals is reusability, and unfortunately we didn’t get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent.”
Blue Origin would not provide more details to Business Insider in an email request.
To date, SpaceX has attempted to land their rockets designed for reuse twice. Unlike Blue Origins’ rather secretive behaviour, SpaceX is extremely open about their failed rocket landing attempts; it even uploads videos of the events onto its YouTube account.
SpaceX’s next rocket-landing attempt will be on June 19. Blue Origins’ next attempt is unknown.
NASA has also commissioned the space company Boeing to contribute rocket technology for future spaceflights, but their appraoch to reusable space technology is very different from either SpaceX or Blue Origin.
Disclosure: Jeff Bezos is an investor in Business Insider through hispersonal investment company Bezos Expeditions.
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