Will Blue Origin Beat SpaceX to Manned Space Flight in 2018?

Jeff Bezos's rocket company is poised to take one giant leap.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX hogged the space-related headlines in 2017, and for good reason. It shot a record number of rockets (18) into orbit this year—many with re-used hardware; it caused an uproar in Los Angeles during its particularly spectacular launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 22; and last week, it moved the most powerful current rocket in existence, the 27-engine Falcon Heavy, onto the famed pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center for an anticipated launch in January. All spectacular stuff.

But while Musk has been busy showing off…er, innovating in the world of low-cost, reusable rocketry, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been flying a bit further under the radar with his own space launch program, Blue Origin. His first rockets—much smaller and stubbier, and launched from a humble locale in west Texas—are designed to carry passengers and payloads just 62 miles (330,000 feet) above the ground, crossing the line into what’s technically space without going high enough or fast enough to actually reach orbit the way Musk’s rockets do. His suborbital launches typically last just over 10 minutes, from blastoff to touchdown. 

Jeff Bezos., Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s launch vehicle, dubbed “New Shepard,” has only flown a handful of times in several versions, and only once in 2017, in a test flight on December 12. But that flight was as significant as anything SpaceX has done this year—if for no other reason than the flight demonstrated the performance of the new Crew Capsule 2.0, signaling that the Bezos rocket could realistically be the first of the two companies to carry living humans into space. The company expects its first engineers and pilots to fly in the craft some time this year, possibly beating Musk to the manned space flight stage. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule—the passenger-carrying version of the cargo capsule it’s been using to shuffle gear to the International Space Station—hasn’t flown yet at all, let alone with people aboard.

Both companies have said that they expect to start taking paying passengers on flights in 2019, so they both need to get moving this year vis-à-vis their own test crews taking the flights. Blue Origin expects an uncrewed flight will happen in April, followed by a crewed launch in August. The other player in the mix—Boeing, with its CST-100 Starliner capsule, competing with SpaceX for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program—also expects both uncrewed and crewed flights in the second half of this year, though it won’t be offering seats to space tourists.

But rocketry, of course, is a persistently dangerous and unpredictable proposition; one launch failure can set a program back months, and any accident with human occupants would set a program back years. Space tourism startup Virgin Galactic learned this the hard way, when one of its combined rocket/spaceplane vehicles crashed during a test flight in 2014, killing a pilot. Since then, Virgin Galactic has been cagey about timelines for its effort, as it takes baby steps back toward powered flight tests.

The New Shepherd on the launchpad., Blue Origin

So even though Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Boeing are shooting for different flight profiles (orbital and suborbital) and crew makeups, this year could be a key turning point in the effort to return the U.S. to manned spaceflight. (Russian rockets have been the only human-rated launchers available since the Space Shuttle retired in 2011.) Blue Origin doesn’t announce its test flights, so its effort could come at any time. Only time will tell whether SpaceX and Boeing can stick to their estimates for crewed launches.

Meanwhile, we have Blue Origin’s stunning video of its December launch—embedded below for your viewing pleasure—to give a sense of what a suborbital journey will feel like. The footage, focused on a dummy dubbed “Mannequin Skywalker” in a passenger seat, is the first time we’ve seen a full suborbital flight from inside the crew-capable vehicle expected to actually go into tourist service. The December Blue Origin launch was the debut of the machine it expects will provide passengers a roller-coaster ride into space, with huge windows—each 2.4 feet wide by 3.6 feet tall—to take in the view. The reveal of that perspective is perhaps as critical as what the ride will be like for the customers, given that they’ll be shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for what amounts to a thrill ride of a lifetime…and they’ll want to be able to look around.

But regardless of how great the view is, spaceflight is no walk in the park. High-energy descents into the atmosphere can be violent experiences. So how does Mr. Skywalker fare? From the looks of it, a ride aboard New Shepard will be a reasonably placid affair. 

The flight from Texas reached an altitude of 322,000 feet—60 miles high, just shy of the Karman Line that marks the transition into space. That may not sound like much in terms of galactic distances, until you consider the fact that the International Space Station orbits at only 254 miles. You could drive there in a Bugatti in an hour, assuming a variety of physics laws didn’t apply. So 62 miles is nothing to sneeze at.

The ride up inflicted between 1.5g and 3g on the capsule, similar to the more intense moments on a roller coaster. That said, the rocket reached a maximum velocity of Mach 2.94, which is a lot faster than a roller coaster. At apogee—the peak of the craft’s arc—the capsule, having separated from the rocket itself, experienced about four minutes of zero-gravity travel as it commenced its fall back to Earth. It eventually deployed parachutes for the landing, while the rocket landed on its own launch pad using retrorockets similar to what SpaceX uses to recover its first-stage hardware.

The launch appears smooth but brisk, like an exceptionally fast elevator. We see the mountains steadily retreat from view, hear the persistent thrust from the engine, and watch the sky darken. Eventually the atmosphere becomes a thin blue line, the blackness of space above it; the motors cut out, the rocket continues to coast upward, then separation occurs. During the weightless stage, keen eyes can pick out sunlight reflecting off debris floating in the capsule. 

Re-entry also seems quite manageable; coming back down to Earth from suborbital flight isn’t anything like what capsules coming down from orbital altitudes experience, as the latter are scrubbing off a lot more speed. Finally, the mountains return to view, the sound kicks back in, and the rockets continue to squirt out little blasts to keep the capsule facing the right direction. When the parachutes deploy, the movement suddenly becomes more pendulous, but it’s not until touchdown that you can really see the mannequin bounce around—landing brings a jolt that looks hard, but not exactly violent, and easily absorbed by the proper seat cushioning.

The New Shephard crew capsule returning to Earth., Blue Origin
The booster returning to the surface., Blue Origin

Ultimately, SpaceX and Blue Origin are working toward the same thing—low-cost, reusable space transport. Blue Origin sees New Shepard as a steppingstone to its orbital launcher, New Glenn, which will be even larger than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. Musk, on the other hand, sees his launchers as steppingstones to Mars,which can also be adapted for suborbital flights as high-speed point-to-point transports. (Say, New York to London in 22 minutes.) As for what SpaceX’s experiences will be like, we’ll have to wait and see. Whether Bezos beats Musk in putting men into orbit in 2018 or not, however, it looks like Blue Origin has a winner on its hands.