The Amazon billionaire’s once secretive program to take paying passengers to the edge of space now appears to be set to overtake Branson’s Virgin Galactic project to inaugurate space tourism.
With a successful fourth test flight of Bezos’s New Shepard space vehicle Sunday, his very different approach to achieving reliable suborbital flight gives his company, Blue Origin, what seems like a competitive edge.
In fact, after three successful tests in seven months, Bezos was so confident of his team’s design that the new test flight included a deliberate systems failure to see how well the capsule that would carry passengers survived a hard landing.
Bezos and Branson are both selling basically the same thing: a hot ride to just beyond 62 miles above earth where the boundary of space officially begins, followed by a few minutes of weightlessness and mind-blowing views on the way back to earth.
However, while Bezos provides a ride in a capsule atop a rocket, Branson has bet on a ride inside what resembles the cabin of a small business jet, albeit punched aloft by a rocket and returning to earth in a long glide (Bezos’s capsule drops to earth under three parachutes and uses a last-minute rocket braking system to soften the landing.)
Since 2004 Richard Branson has been virtually a one-man megaphone for space tourism. After missing many deadlines for the launch of his Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo program a test flight in October 2014 ended in disaster and the death of one of the two pilots.
The copilot actuated an aerodynamic braking device too soon and the vehicle was torn apart. A report on the crash by the National Transportation Safety Board was critical of both Galactic for its safety procedures and of the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of the flight testing.
Testing is only now about to resume. (The first flights will be glides to earth, not rocket-powered ascents.)
The accident visibly shocked Branson. But his experience recalls that of other pioneers who pursued transformational ideas. Sometimes being first is costly and ends in having to watch others take the prize.
Case in point: the jet age began with a British airliner, the beautifully-sculpted de Havilland Comet. But the British designers did not understand the stresses of jet flight on airplane structures and several crashes revealed a fatal flaw. By the time this was corrected de Havilland were overtaken by Boeing with their 707 and the Brits never regained their lead.
Branson’s designer, Burt Rutan, pioneered the concept of a reusable vehicle that could blast its way to the threshold of space and return to a runway like an airplane. Rutan’s SpaceShipOne won a $10 million prize in 2004 for achieving the first manned private space flight.
To meet Branson’s goal of flying six passengers and a crew of two on a suborbital trip Rutan took the original concept – the space vehicle launched from a mother ship—and scaled it up. The result was Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnight Two, the mother ship.
The problem with SpaceShipTwo has always been to generate enough rocket power to carry the heavier payload. After three years of powered test flights the vehicle remains far short of achieving its goals. The highest altitude so far reached is just under 13.5 miles, just one fifth of the apogee it must reach to qualify as suborbital flight.
The 2014 crash exposed tensions between the roles of the FAA and the NTSB over safety of both crew and passengers on space tourism flights. Chris Hart, then the acting chairman of the NTSB, admitted to confusion over who was responsible for what.
Even though the FAA’s “Recommended Practices” for space flight include the capability “to abort, escape or both” there is no escape mechanism for Virgin Galactic passengers. In contrast, the passenger-carrying capsule of New Shepard can eject from the launch rocket in case of an emergency and descend by parachute.
Branson organized one of his typically flamboyant press jamborees earlier this year to introduce the “new” SpaceShipTwo that will begin test flights this summer. In truth this was always intended to become a second test vehicle to fly simultaneously with the first that was lost in the crash. It has some modifications, both to increase safety and improve its aerodynamics, but it remains basically the original Rutan design. (But it does have a new name, Unity.)
One indication of the struggle to get the vehicle’s rocket engine to deliver enough power, and to deliver it reliably, is that the formula for the fuel used has changed twice. Originally a rubber-based fuel was used, notable for the blackness of its exhaust. That was replaced with a nylon-based fuel that was used on the fatal test flight (the fuel had nothing to do with the crash). Now Galactic has reverted to the rubber-based fuel—apparently because it enables the rocket engine to be simpler and lighter.
The same failure to produce enough power has afflicted the mother ship, WhiteKnightTwo—though in this case it is jet engines that have proved not powerful enough, not rockets, and not for the role of launching the space vehicle.
Branson had made much of a dual role for WhiteKnightTwo. In place of the space vehicle slung beneath its belly there would be LauncherOne, a rocket capable of launching satellites into orbit. In principle, launching a rocket from the cruise height of a mother ship, around 40,000 feet, instead of launching from the ground, requires much less power and therefore the rocket can be smaller and lighter. It fires off into space and then itself launches the satellite from its nose.
It turned out, though, that the right size rocket for launching satellites was too heavy for WhiteKnightTwo to lift. In its place Branson has taken a Boeing 747 retired from his Virgin Atlantic fleet and this will be modified to become the mother ship for LauncherOne—by coincidence the 747 had flown for the airline under the name of Cosmic Girl.
Launching the next generation of smaller satellites used to build communications and navigation networks in space is estimated to be a huge business – over the next five years more than 500 small satellites will be looking for launch vehicles, a market worth more than $7 billion. However, adapting old jumbo jets as launchers might well be a stopgap—the Europeans are developing a pilotless vehicle, a kind of super drone, for launching small satellites into low Earth orbit.
With the emergence of Bezos as a serious challenger to Virgin Galactic, the rival programs could not more clearly reflect the difference in the characters and approach of the two billionaire space cadets.
Bezos’s business plan for Amazon defied a body of conventional wisdom—the company grew steadily but never made a dime of profit for years. It was predicated on Bezos’s iron belief that once the business reached a certain scale it could overpower all competitors and make him billions, which, of course, eventually it did.
All the time, apparently, Bezos had another dream. He foresaw a world in which all heavy industry would be moved to space— “Earth can be zoned residential and light industrial” he told reporters when, earlier this year, he showed them around Blue Origin’s main plant at Kent, Washington.
Space tourism is, comparatively, a very modest part of his larger dream. But it is one in which he very early on saw a danger. “Space is very easy to overhype” he said.
Tell that to Branson. Virgin Galactic is the classic textbook case of a project becoming the victim of overhyping. Branson has never seemed to grasp the enormity of the scientific challenges he faced. It seemed hard for him to distinguish between an experimental program, which is certainly what the Rutan concept has been, and the level of reliability required for it to become operational, able to deliver, at the very least, several flights a week with passengers.
While Branson was staging theatrical press conferences and, in the process, getting hundreds of people to sign up for a trip costing $250,000 per person, Bezos built a launching pad and complex at Van Horn in west Texas and gathered a team of top ranking aerospace engineers without any publicity at all. Indeed, there was an aura of compelling mystery about what he was up to.
That all changed when Blue Origin’s achievements became clear. Bezos was determined to show that privately-funded space engineering was not going to be just the equal of NASA’s moonshot-scale programs but that it could be far more efficient and cost-effective. At the heart of this philosophy is reusability—instead of rockets that become junk after one flight, they would return to earth and be used for multiple launches.
When New Shepard made its first flight last November it hit all its targets. The capsule separated at the apogee of 62.45 miles, all three parachutes deployed at 20,000 feet and it touched down 11 minutes after liftoff. At the same time the rocket was aligned for a landing back at the launching pad. As it reached a height of 5,000 feet above the pad the engines restarted to brake the speed. Fifty feet from the pad four landing legs deployed and the rocket touched down at a speed barely above four miles per hour—and less than five feet from the center of the pad.
It was an astonishing proof of concept. Not least among the achievements was to have tamed the brute power of the rocket engine well enough to be able to throttle it down from maximum power, like a jet engine.
No longer needing to keep his dreamworks under wraps, Bezos opened up the plant (an old Boeing facility) to reporters in March. As impressive as New Shepard is, it’s not the main item of business. That is the production of a far more powerful rocket engine that will replace the Russian engine at present used to launch future programs into deep space.
Beyond that there is what the Blue Origin engineers call Very Big Brother—a scaled-up version of New Shepard, engine, rocket and capsule that would be orbital. (The other billionaire in the space business, Elon Musk, has achieved reusability with his SpaceX orbital rockets, after several failures; Musk’s ultimate plan is a ride to Mars, not a tourist excursion.)
Bezos says he has spent more than $500 million to get this far—that’s about the same sum that Branson has admitted to spending on Virgin Galactic, though experts believe that the real total is nearer a billion. The difference is that Bezos now has a proven industrial-scale foothold in the space business while Branson is still well short of achieving proof of concept.
It has to be said, though, that should the Galactic concept eventually work—and there are many hurdles facing it before we will know if it does—it will provide a very elegant way for rich people to get a unique high. The transition from the velocity of the rocket ride to the long glide back to the spaceport is a daring combination of ballistics and aerodynamics. It’s more imaginative than New Shepard’s dependency on ballistics and a descent on parachutes that reminds us more of how astronauts coming home from space end up either in the sea or in remote parts of the Russian tundra.
But is this really space tourism? It depends what you mean by space, and what you mean by tourism. Suborbital joy rides barely brush the edge of space. They certainly give a visceral shot to the thrill-seekers. But “tourism” seems a tame word for something that embraces such heights and speeds. One thing is for sure, for people with money to burn it will really smoke.