Blue Origin Announces First Customer for New Glenn Launcher
Jeff Bezos has a customer for his New Glenn launch vehicle, Eutelsat, which he announced at Satellite 2017 this morning in Washington, DC. While still years away from operations, Blue Origin has been making steady progress in a step-by-step fashion. It is this stead process "in the right sequence" that Jeff Bezos views as being most important to his company's success.
When it begins to fly New Glenn will dwarf the launch capacity of the Falcon Heavy that SpaceX is developing and will match NASA's Saturn V in terms of sheer size. There are two and three stage variants of New Glenn. The one that will be placing most commercial payloads into orbit can place 45 metric tons into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and 13 metric tons into Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO).
Once the first stage has competed its task it will return to Earth in a fashion similar to SpaceX (without the in-space deceleration engine burn) and land on a large barge that bears more than a passing resemblance to SpaceX's two ships. Blue Origin claims a patent on this concept but has yet to try and enforce it in any serious fashions. No doubt the Blue Origin barges will eventually sport odd names that only a billionaire would think of as is the case with SpaceX.
While smallsats are all the rage these days, the market for larger more powerful satellites has not gone away either.
To get to the point where Blue Origin can launch these larger rockets routinely, Bezos says the current focus on New Shephard provides a perfect chance to practice that aspect of rocket science.
While New Shephard is primarily designed as a tourism platform, the way it launches and lands is very easily scalable according to Bezos. It is also something that Blue Origin can do again and again so as to gain the operational practice and provide input to design changes needed to make its larger rockets similarly easy to fly and reuse.
The test vehicle that Blue Origin used in 2015 and 2016 flew 5 times above the Kaman line (62 miles/100 km), i.e. it officially visited outer space. According to Bezos comparatively little maintenance was required. And of course the rocket had to be filled with comparatively cheap rocket fuel too.
If you watch the videos of a New Shephard on final approach you can be forgiven for thinking it is about to crash. At the last second its engines fire and the vehicle slows dramatically allowing landings at less than 5 mph. It is these slow, calm landings that Bezos and his team of 1,000 employees are working on.
At some point Blue Origin will face the same challenge as all of these other space companies: finding customers. While Virgin Galactic's prices for suborbital flights are beyond the reach of virtually everyone, Blue Origin has yet to reveal its pricing strategy. If you look at how Bezos ran Amazon.com you may get a hint. Bezos always seemed to want a price point at Amazon that large number of consumers would be attracted to with the hope that sheer volume and customer loyalty would eventually make services profitable.
Bezos mentioned how earlier technologies that we take for granted often found their way into our daily lives via unexpected routes - such as entertainment. Itinerant pilots and their planes roaming America at the turn of the last century selling barnstorming rides (entertainment) helped to keep them employed, their planes in the air, and create an ever-growing consumer base who had flown and wanted to fly again.
Perhaps that is where Blue Origin is going. Who knows. The ever secretive company is not saying. But someone is going to have to find a way to provide rides into space that do not cost the equivalent of a several college educations to meet Jeff Bezos' avowed goal: "millions of people living and working in space."
Is Jeff Bezos the guy who will let you barnstorm in space? Stay tuned.