35 thoughts on “Blue Origin”

  1. Blue Origin is on the ball, and realistically the only major competition for SpaceX 10 years out. Their biggest problem is that right now they have a more “waterfall” style development cycle, which means they don’t have the operational experience/testing/income that SpaceX does. Hopefully Bezos’ pockets are big enough to keep Blue Origin operating long enough to mature. The use of LH2 as a fuel is somewhat concerning but still workable.

    1. As a followup, one of the big things that Blue Origin is doing (similar to SpaceX) is significant vertical integration in manufacturing. That will give them the flexibility, cost control, and ability to innovate that should enable them to become competitive with SpaceX even if they make mistakes coming out of the gate (which they will).

    2. What makes you say they have more of a waterfall development model right now? They are so secretive it is hard to know, but their motto is gradatim ferociter.

      1. I guess that’s not really fair. They do have hardware, and they are testing, so waterfall isn’t the right terminology.

        The difference is that SpaceX is testing/developing via an already operational and profitable path whereas Blue Origin is doing so from the ground up, and intending to hit the market with a fully baked reusable vehicle, essentially.

  2. I do not put much faith into Blue Origin’s launcher efforts. The whole deal seemed underfunded, poorly staffed, and badly planned from the start.

    SpaceX had people with propulsion expertise and designed for orbital satellite launch from the start. Blue Origin supposedly was going for suborbital manned launches and wasted time with H2O2 monopropellant rockets that simply do not have the performance for orbital launch. Now I hear they have propulsion experts and real engine designs but until I see proof of actual working hardware I am not that convinced they will succeed. IMO people like XCOR have a lot better chances of providing a working launcher. At least they have bona fide propulsion expertise.

  3. Don’t be too sure of that. Their BE-3 engine (Yes, Rand, it’s Hydrogen) has been tested at Stennis & reportedly garnered high marks. They’ve had at least one test vehicle with those engines – they had to unzip it when it went out of control and exceeded altitude limits.

    My impression is that they are farther along than they appear to be, but are also in no particular hurry.

    1. This is exactly correct. They are playing the long game. They aren’t planning to compete against ULA or Arianespace in 2015 or even 2020, they’re planning to compete against SpaceX (and whomever) in 2030+. They have a very different approach than SpaceX but it’s important to remember that they have enough money from Bezos to basically continue until they succeed even if it takes many years.

      1. While I understand that innovation has been somewhat slow to come about from the 60’s until 2003, with SpaceX’s push for reusability and their dramatic decrease in launch costs, how does a company go about putting together a plan to compete in 2030? If the game has changed as much as it has in the last 11 years, what is the game even going to look like in another 16 years?

        And if a company is innovative enough to anticipate (and exceed) the state of the industry 16 years in the future, why aren’t they pushing the envelope already?

        While I can understand the idea of being “in no particular hurry”, that’s an awfully large time gap to sit on one’s laurels and hope you end up competitive down the road. Then again, if the point isn’t to be competitive or make money, all other logic might as well be out the window, too.

        1. It’s all in how they approach vehicle design. SpaceX started with reusables and is vectoring towards reusability incrementally. This affords greater opportunity for earlier orbital operations and for reusability testing in a more full-up configuration. Blue Origin is aiming for reusability from the get go. Starting with reusable sub-orbital vehicles and moving toward fully reusable orbital launchers.

          BO’s way of going about things isn’t necessarily a worse way to go but it has larger up front costs and longer periods without significant revenue and, perhaps worse, without significant orbital operations (which are invaluable in terms of experience). BO is aiming for extreme reusability, they have their sights set on spaceflight that is more similar to air travel (completely reusable vehicles, extremely high safety margins, high duty cycle). By doing so that naturally puts their future offerings within the ballpark of SpaceX’s reusable vehicles, which will end up being the only two vehicles capable of reaching those cost levels.

          If SpaceX succeeds at first stage reuse then no existing launch vehicle will be even remotely competitive with them. Moreover, no minor variation of any existing LV will be either. It will require clean sheet designs to enter that business space successfully. BO is aiming for that business space with a vehicle designed from the get go for it. If they pull it off they will certainly achieve better cost/flight numbers than ULA, Arianespace, etc. but will they be able to beat or keep up with SpaceX? That’s an open question, but time will tell.

          1. SpaceX started with reusables

            Do mean “started with expendables”? Elon might say that he always designed for reusability, but he’s just slowly getting better at it…

          2. Haha, yes (sorry, was on my phone). SpaceX started with expendables and then incrementally moved towards reusability. Granted, being able to do so required a lot of forethought in terms of reusability (or some fortuitous accidents). The interesting thing, which I’ve spoken on before, is that no other launchers have an easy route towards reusability. Any competition to reusable launchers will have to come from new vehicles. That certainly puts SpaceX in the cat bird seat for a while. But BO is definitely aimed squarely at that target and no other. It’ll be interesting to see how things shake out once both have fully operational RLVs in the market.

          3. It’s more about the driving vision than the technology. It doesn’t matter if existing vehicles can’t be made reusable. What matters is if the lightbulb goes off with the person in charge. Once Elon proves it works the other dopes will think it was their idea all along. Then you’ll see new reusable vehicles coming from left field.

    2. No, the BO vehicle that was destroyed in-flight was NOT powered by the BE-3 engine.

      It was the ‘New Shepard’ vehicle, powered by peroxide/RP-1. After that they seemed to go back to the drawing board and start over with an all-new HydroLox architecture. (it was probably the long term plan, but the incident seemed to accelerate it)

  4. The BE-3 seems sized nicely for a 2cd stage. I don’t like it as a 1st stage engine though. It’s gonna take a large cluster of them and a sizable core to get good performance. Commenters at L2 were talking of the possibilities of this engine being used on the Antares upper stage if Bezos would sell it. I’d be interested what performance it would give a FH in a optimized 2cd stage, with crossfed on the boosters. Fun thought, but will never happen

    1. I disagree. Clustering first stage engines is a feature, not a bug. It provides a much higher engine-out mission success expectation than a single engine for a given single-point engine failure probability. It also provides easier throttling for tail-sitter landings by switching whole engines on and off instead of needing absurd deep-throttle ability for a single big engine. The superior reliability of clustered systems is an engineering principle borrowed from RAID storage arrays and applied to launch vehicles. I don’t think it’s at all accidental that both SpaceX and Blue Origin have gone this route given that both of their founders started out in the computing business.

      1. Yes, though, as we’ve seen, it also reduces schedule reliability, because it increases the probability of a scrub due to an engine being out of spec.

        1. Yes, the reliability factor with the plumbing and complexity of deliver LH2 to a cluster of at least 9 BE-3’s is not going to be as reliable as for simple Kerolox engines like the Merlin. The 1st stage is also going to be significantly larger than a Kerolox stage due to the difference in fuel density, making it more expensive, as well as potentially more difficult to land with a single BE-3 if trying to perform a return to launch site. I’m curious to know if Kerbal Space program can model how much you could get to TMI Or TLI with a BE-3 upper stage, with an ISP of around 410-420 sitting on a FH that crossfeeds the cores to the 2.5 stage configuration, and burns the center to core to fuel depletion. ( no RTLS ). Need a spy at BO to give some T/W numbers and ISP. Anyone???

        2. Not sure I recall any specific such instances. SpaceX has had a lot of delays due to hardware anomalies cropping up, but it hasn’t really been engines that have been the problem. Even the one time they mentioned borescoping engines after an unsatisfactory hot fire, the problem turned out to be a pad-related TEA-TEB contamination issue. The just-launched mission was held up a number of times, but some of the reasons had NASA/ISS origins and others, like the sewing machine oil contamination of payload blankets and the glitchy helium valve in the stage-separation system were non-engine-related. And the one time an engine actually failed in service, the RAID design philosophy proved its worth by allowing the vehicle to still achieve 100% success on the primary mission.

          There seems to be a fetish in the aerospace engineering community to the effect that absolute minimum parts count is always a positive figure of merit. “The N-1’s had huge 1st-stage clusters; the N-1’s all blew up” seems to be the mantra for this viewpoint. No. The reliability of individual engines is a lot higher now than in the 60’s. So, for that matter, is the reliability of the individual disk drives in all those RAID arrays spinning merrily in the server farms of Amazon and Google. Both are true because high-precision mechanical manufacturing in general is a lot better than it was in the 60’s. The Apollo do-it-all-with-one-big-rocket idea isn’t the only mental earwig of that vintage too many people are still infected by.

      2. I’m wondering why clusters always seem to be of just one engine type? It would seem that engines of different size could function better than trying to deep throttle?

  5. Seems that, on their poster, the yellow color of the rocket plume is more that of LOX/kerosene than of hydrogen/oxygen (which would be to the blue, if not transparent).

    1. I thought they were using kerosene / peroxide before their likely switch to all LOX/LH2. I’m not entirely sure the latter has ever been officially confirmed, but I think it was after a long time of speculation.

  6. Why hydrogen for the first stage?

    The one explanation I can think of is that BO, like SpaceX, wants to avoid developing multiple main engines, at least initially. If so, this begs the question of why BO, unlike SpaceX, it has chosen to focus on what makes sense for upper and in-space stages rather than on first stages.

    Can anyone offer better explanations?

    1. They really wanted to eventually get SSTO so originally went with a specific impulse they thought would get them there? Inertia from there?

  7. The thing that’s apparent is they see themselves as competition and have the money to make a go of it. Once SpaceX succeeds with reusability the game will have been changed. My concern was they leave the competition so far behind that nobody would come close to catching up. Getting close is enough to force SpaceX to continue to innovate if they don’t continue to innovate without that competitive pressure.

    BTW, in comments to this post CJ has identified why a stowaway could not go on the next cargo dragon flight.

  8. The difference in style between SpaceX and Blue Origin can almost entirely be assigned to their starting points. Elon Musk had enough money to self bootstrap but had to go incrementally to generate cash flow. Jeff Bezo’s, on the other hand, can pay for Blue Origin with a part of the annual income from his capital base. That allows him to take the long view. There are pluses and minuses to both approaches. SpaceX gains more experience but risks losing focus over the long run; Jeff Bezo’s runs the risk of feeling too unhurried and of failing to build a commercially experienced team. Bottom line though; each is doing things the way they are doing them because they can.

    1. Elon Musk has a rocket company.

      Jeff Bezos has a space program.

      Two differing approaches to a similar question.

      1. Blue Origin is a hobby.

        Everyone I’ve known who has worked there and left, has done so because they wanted to work on something that was actually going somewhere.

        1. The saddest part, if you’re right, is that this unhurried hobbyist is still likely to have flyable hardware sooner than the SLS/Orion gang at NASA.

  9. Bezo’s would have absolutely no problem throwing a couple billion at this project if he was serious about getting hardware off the ground. So far his spending on space has been an asterick in his total portfolio spending.

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