Private space exploration

Space Exploration / September 29, 2019

The burgeoning space-transportation company owned by chairman Jeff Bezos this week is expected to announce some customers and new initiatives, the latest step toward its long-term goal of building rockets powerful enough to penetrate deep into the solar system, according to industry officials.

The moves by the typically secretive Mr. Bezos, these officials said, are anticipated to disclose further details about Blue Origin LLC's strategy to create a family of reusable rockets initially intended to take tourists on suborbital voyages, and then propel spacecraft into Earth's orbit and eventually blast both manned and robotic missions to the Moon and various planets.

Plans for heavy-lift boosters previously unveiled by Mr. Bezos, including one version roughly half as powerful as the iconic Saturn V rockets that lifted Apollo astronauts to the moon, ultimately could emerge as rivals with powerful rockets already under development by fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working on its own version of a deep-space booster and capsule.

The initial test flight of SpaceX's long-delayed Falcon Heavy, which would become the world's most potent operational rocket, is scheduled for later this year. NASA's much larger booster, called SLS, is slated for its maiden flight in 2018.

So far, Mr. Bezos has been less specific about timetables to demonstrate the reliability of his emerging heavy-lift rocket variant, called New Glenn, after the late astronaut and U.S. senator, John Glenn. Amazon's founder has been even less specific about a next-generation rocket on the drawing board, dubbed New Armstrong, in memory of the late astronaut Neil Armstrong, who was the first man to set foot on the Moon. That booster is intended for travel deep into the solar system.

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Both self-described "space geeks" with ambitious visions of helping humans establish large-scale settlements beyond Earth in their lifetimes, Messrs. Bezos and Musk have jousted good-naturedly on social media in the past about competing to land the first spent booster vertically back on Earth. Mr. Bezos did it first after a suborbital mission, but Mr. Musk accomplished the feat by landing the main portion of a Falcon 9 rocket that delivered a payload into orbit.

For the first time, Blue Origin in the next few days is expected to make public specific customers, according to industry officials. A series of announcements and postings on Twitter is slated to follow a separate flurry of news reports last week about Blue Origin's bid for NASA's support to ship experiments, cargo and other hardware to the moon with the aim of setting up a permanent settlement there.

The proposal, which hasn't been acted on by the agency, was first reported by the Washington Post, which is controlled by Mr. Bezos.

Last-minute shifts could change Blue Origin's plans for the coming days, and Mr. Bezos is renowned for teasing the media with broad concepts, often without providing subsequent details. He is scheduled to speak Tuesday morning in the prominent leadoff slot at an international satellite conference in Washington.

The appearance also comes in the wake of Mr. Musk prompting headlines last week with a proposal to fly two fare-paying passengers on an automated trip around the moon by 2018.

Traditional and startup U.S. space companies are maneuvering to take advantage of the principle of public-private partnerships to accelerate manned exploration favored by President Donald Trump's administration.

With a few exceptions, Mr. Bezos has opted to run Blue Origin since its founding at the beginning of the last decade behind a strict veil of secrecy - and without seeking substantial federal contracts or development funding.

Last September, Mr. Bezos rocked the international aerospace community by disclosing that his New Glenn rocket would feature a cluster of seven main engines and stand more than 310 feet tall. If it flies by the end of the decade as intended, the largest version of the proposed booster could vie for commercial and military satellite launches with SpaceX, Europe's premier launch provider Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Over the years, Mr. Bezos has stressed the importance of creating reusable technology able to slash transportation costs by operating much more frequently than today's rockets. He also has talked about his long-term vision of "millions of people living and working in space."

Unlike Mr. Musk, who relishes making a steady stream of splashy announcements setting increasingly aggressive goals, Mr. Bezos remained virtually silent to outsiders until after Blue Origin pulled off its coup of successfully landing a New Shepard booster back at its West Texas launchpad in late 2015.

The unmanned vehicle flew a suborbital test to 333, 000 feet, reached nearly four times the speed of sound, and then both the capsule and its liquid-fueled rocket separately landed safely - ready for another flight. At the time, Mr. Bezos projected commercial space-tourism flights could start "sometime in 2017." He also said "full reuse is a game changer" for access to space.

In November 2016, when he disclosed plans for a series of larger rockets with substantially more thrust, Mr. Bezos issued a stark reminder of how different his approach is versus that of Mr. Musk.

Noting "our mascot is the tortoise, " Mr. Bezos said "deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps."