Blue Origin: Jeff Bezos’s New Mission to Space Tourism and Exploration
What’s so intriguing about Space Programs from Blue Origin?
It is not uncommon for technopreneurs to have ambitions for space travel. Be it Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, or even Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.
In 1982, Bezos had revealed to the Miami Herald about his plans “to build space hotels, amusement parks and colonies for 2 million or 3 million people who would be in orbit. The goal was to be able to evacuate humans. The planet would become a park.” He officially founded Blue Origin on September 8th, 2000 in Kent, Washington (which now houses the company HQ and R&D center) and set about developing both space-worthy vehicles as well as the rocket motors to push them.
He named the company Blue Origin after ‘blue planet’. Explaining to SpaceNews, Bezos mentioned that “my friends who want to move to Mars, I say, do me a favor and go live on the top of Mount Everest for a year first, and see if you like it, because it’s a garden paradise compared to Mars. So, we go to space to protect this planet. This is why the company’s named Blue Origin: blue planet, it’s where we’re from. But we also don’t want to face a civilization of stasis, and that is the real issue if we just stay on this planet.”
The company which is known for its secrecy, first came to public light when Bezos made a series of land purchases in Texas in 2006. As per the Wall Street Journal, these purchases were made under names such as “James Cook L.P.,” “Jolliet Holdings,” “Coronado Ventures,” and “Cabot Enterprises,” which all traced back to the same address. The corporate names, incidentally, all were based on famous explorers.
Blue Origin’s motto is Gradatim Ferociter, which roughly translates as “step by step, ferociously”, in Latin. Previously, the company had received more than US$25 million in contracts (payment was based upon milestones completed) from NASA for the Commercial Crew Development program, which is working to develop privately funded space vehicles to bring people to the International Space Station. However, as the Commercial Crew program continued, NASA chose rival systems SpaceX Dragon and Boeing CST-100 to provide crew flights to the International Space Station.
Recently, Bezos announced stepping down from CEO position at Amazon, with Andy Jassy as his replacement. Meanwhile, Bezos will acquire a new job at Amazon, as executive chair. In an official statement, he said the decision was based in part on his desire to focus on Blue Origin, his private space company.
“As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” he said.
This news comes after Blue Origin made headlines in January over its New Shepard Program. This program is designed to take six space tourists on a sub-orbital flight where they can experience about three minutes of weightlessness. The total flight time for this particular test was 10 minutes and 10 seconds. During that time, the capsule was made to rotate at 2 to 3 degrees a second, so that future passengers can experience a 360-degree view during their flight.
This was New Shepard’s 14th successful suborbital flight since its first outing in 2015. Its previous 13 test flights made use of two earlier-generation capsules and three earlier-generation boosters. New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard, the first man in space.
This mission known as NS-14 saw the company’s 18-meter-tall rocket launch a capsule to the boundary of space, one that’s designed to eventually carry humans at a cost of US$200,000 or more per ticket. The capsule has been dubbed the RSS First Step. RSS stands for “Reusable Spaceship,” while First Step refers to Blue Origin’s intent to use the craft for crewed flights beginning later this year. Just like, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 orbital rocket, it has vertical takeoff and landing capabilities.
The crew capsule reached a maximum altitude of 350,827 feet (106,932 meters), i.e. 66 miles (107km) above mean sea level, placing it 4.3 miles (7km) higher than the Kármán line, the official boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.
The launch took off on Thursday, January 14 at 12.17 P.M. Eastern Time from the company’s private Launch Site One in West Texas. A rocket booster was used to propel New Shepard to an altitude of 42 miles, before it’s jettisoned into space. The craft then climbs a further 20 miles using smaller onboard boosters. After the short space trip, both capsule and booster began their descent to Earth. The booster restarting its onboard engine to land safely back on the ground roughly seven minutes after launching, using the help of fins to guide it. In contrast, the crew capsule, relied on parachutes to descend safely back to Earth, where it then came to a gentle landing back on the ground.
The flight also continued to prove the robustness and stability of the New Shepard system and the BE-3PM liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine. The BE-3 engine generates 110,000 pounds of thrust upon launch. By comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9’s Merlin engine, generates around 190,000 pounds of thrust.
Since the goal is to sell tickets to tourists in the coming years, this mission had many interesting upgrades. For instance, NS-14 had new interior speakers with a microphone and a push-to-talk button for each seat to allow the crew to speak continuously with Mission Control. A new crew alert system has been fitted, too, with a panel at each seat relaying important safety messages to those traveling onboard the capsule. It also had a cooling system and humidity controls to regulate temperature and prevent capsule windows from fogging during flight. And for a more comfortable ride, the capsule now has cushioned wall linings and sound-suppression devices to reduce ambient noise.
“They are taking the acoustics very seriously, and that will be important for the passenger experience,” said John Spencer, a space architect and president of the non-profit Space Tourism Society based in Los Angeles.
“In a metal capsule, sounds during a launch would be magnified and very loud without acoustic dampening, so that is essential if people want to plan a quick space wedding or another event where you’d want music.”
Blue Origin also placed a test dummy, called Mannequin Skywalker – named after Anakin Skywalker from the Popular film series Star Wars. It offered some scale to the capsule’s large windows that future space tourists will gaze out of as they marvel at the stunning views. Among the payloads packed aboard the capsule, there were more than 50,000 postcards sent in by students around the globe through the auspices of Blue Origin’s Club for the Future educational campaign. Some of these postcards were tucked inside Mannequin Skywalker’s pockets.
Currently, Blue Origin is also working on an orbital-class New Glenn rocket– named after John Glenn, the first American in orbit. It is working on a project called Blue Moon, a lander that it hopes to send to the lunar surface in 2024. This lunar landing system is being built for NASA’s use in partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.
Blue Origin also has planned Project Kuiper under which it shall launch a 3,236-satellite constellation to provide high-speed internet to people around the world.
New Glenn will come in two variants: a 270-foot-tall two-stage rocket and a 313-foot-tall three-stage rocket. The larger variant is expected to exceed low Earth orbit. But New Glenn will not take off on its maiden flight until at least later this year. Further, Blue Origin now has a rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Ala., and huge facilities just outside NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for assembling the New Glenn rockets.
Simultaneously, Virgin Galactic is also planning a tourism service for suborbital space flights, but its system uses a runway launch with a carrier aircraft (spaceplane) instead of a rocket.