Investing in Space

Jeff Bezos explains how his rocket for space tourists will help Blue Origin take on SpaceX

Key Points
  • Jeff Bezos explained at an event Wednesday how his space company, Blue Origin, is learning from test flights of rocket New Shepard, according to Space News.
  • He reportedly said that the lessons from the company's New Shepard rocket are informing its development of the massive New Glenn rocket.
  • New Glenn, once operational, would compete with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy for missions as well as national security contracts.
'The most important' thing Jeff Bezos is working on has hit another milestone
'The most important' thing Jeff Bezos is working on has hit another milestone

At an aerospace luncheon in New York on Wednesday, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave several key insights into his passion project Blue Origin, rather than his day job.

Bezos explained how the space company is learning from test flights of rocket New Shepard, which he expects will begin flying passengers on short trips into space this year. According to industry publication Space News, Bezos said at the event that the lessons from New Shepard are informing Blue Origin's development of its New Glenn rocket — a behemoth the size of a 29-story skyscraper.

"The strategic objective of New Shepard is to practice," Bezos reportedly said. "A lot of the subcomponents of New Shepard actually get directly reused on the second stage of New Glenn."

The two rockets are at very different stages of development. New Shepard has launched 10 times, going past an altitude of 350,000 feet and coming back to land on its most recent test flight from the company's facility in West Texas. The rocket's capsule spends about 10 minutes floating in zero gravity, before following the rocket's booster back down to land, to be launched again. New Shepard would fly space tourists, as the capsule features massive windows that provide expansive views of the Earth once in space.

New Glenn, on the other hand, is a massive rocket designed to launch large spacecraft, such as heavy telecommunications and internet satellites. Once operational, New Glenn would compete with SpaceX's Falcon Heavy for missions, as well as national security contracts. Blue Origin has yet to fly New Glenn, with the first launch expected in 2021. But Bezos said his company is learning a lot from the smaller rocket's test flights.

"All of those systems will get a tremendous amount of practice with that suborbital mission and will be carried over directly to the upper stage [of New Glenn]," Bezos said. "The lessons learned on things like landings and operability and reusability, all those things from the New Shepard program, those also get incorporated into the New Glenn booster."

Watch Bezos' Blue Origin launch and land its reusable rocket
Watch Bezos' Blue Origin launch and land its reusable rocket

While New Glenn will be powered by the company's BE-4 engines, Bezos noted that an upgraded version of New Shepard's BE-3 engine will be used for part of New Glenn, which is the "upper stage" he is referencing.

Additionally, Bezos appeared confident that Blue Origin will launch its first astronauts this year. Although some Blue Origin executives had the same hope last year, Bezos reportedly said, "This is the first time that I've ever been saying 'this year.'" Testing for New Shepard is "going really well," Bezos said.

He also addressed space tourism competitor Virgin Galactic, founded by fellow billionaire Richard Branson. In addressing the market for space joyrides, Bezos reportedly said "one of the issues" Virgin Galactic must address "is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet." The Karman Line is 100 kilometers of altitude, an internationally recognized boundary of space. Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo flies above 80 kilometers, a boundary which the U.S. military and NASA use to recognize astronauts.

"We've always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn't want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you're an astronaut or not," Bezos reportedly said. "That's something they're going to have to address, in my opinion."

Flying below the Karman Line is an "asterisk" Bezos reportedly said Blue Origin will not have to deal with.

Bezos has called Blue Origin "the most important work I'm doing." Bezos also believes there will be more than 1 trillion humans living and working across the solar system one day. Wall Street has begun to pay attention to Bezos' extraterrestrial efforts. Morgan Stanley told clients "to take notice" of Bezos investments in the space industry through Blue Origin, pointing to him as a "force" bringing financial muscle. Blue Origin is one of several space companies Morgan Stanley says "will up the ante starting in 2019."