Billionaires in Space

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Who needs governments to get into space? Not Jeff Bezos. His Blue Origin rocket successfully launched to about 307,000 feet, or just shy of 60 miles, on April 30. An altitude of 100 kilometers (62 miles) is widely considered to be where space begins and was the height specified by the Ansari X Prize, which was won by aircraft designer Burt Rutan in 2004 with SpaceShipOne, financed by billionaire Paul G. Allen.

The very secretive Blue Origin rocket company was formed by billionaire Bezos 15 years ago, and had only launched partial test missions before. Bezos reportedly has invested as much as $500 million in Blue Origin. The company has been awarded NASA contracts for development totaling about $25 million.

Blue Origins 1-stage rocket

Blue Origins 1-stage rocket with crew capsule aboard in April 30 test launch in Texas.

The suborbital flight of Blue Origin, which at this point uses only a first-stage rocket and a crew capsule that separates and lands under parachute, seemed to go off without a hitch. However, the liquid hydrogen, liquid-oxygen booster first stage was supposed to be recoverable, and like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket was intended to land vertically.

Instead, the rocket suffered a hydraulic system failure and apparently crashed. Billionaire Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 also had a hydraulic failure when it first attempted a vertical landing. Its second attempt came very close to a vertical landing on a floating barge at sea, but fell over at the last second.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket system, named for Alan Shepard, the first American into space, is designed to take wealthy voyagers up to where the sky is no longer blue for a trip similar to that being developed by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic rocket, SpaceShipTwo. However, Blue Origin is developing a crew capsule intended for going farther — into Earth orbit— as well as a much larger and more powerful booster first-stage rocket that will operate on liquid methane and oxygen to get it there.

The larger engine is part of a collaboration with United Launch Alliance, which is jointly owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing and which relies on its very successful Atlas V rocket to launch satellites and military payloads.

The Alliance has come under congressional criticism for relying on a Russian rocket engine for its first stage. Blue Origin is developing its BE-4 liquid-methane engine for a newer and more powerful Atlas spacecraft. Blue Origin says its BE-4 engine will develop 550,000 pounds of thrust.

The New Shepard spacecraft launched on April 30 has a thrust of about 110,000 pounds, and the capsule, which can carry three astronauts, can be fitted with an emergency escape motor. That unit has been previously tested successfully.

The first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket generates 1.3 million pounds of thrust, and the second stage generates 180,000 pounds of thrust. SpaceX will soon test a Falcon Heavy rocket that will produce a thrust of more than 4.5 million pounds, capable of taking more than 50 tons of satellites into Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is building a rocket that has been designed by space company Orbital ATK. Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, about as secretive as Blue Origin, will incorporate a multistage rocket designed and built by Orbital ATK.

It will be air-launched from a highly modified, huge twin-fuselage Boeing 747 called White Knight Two, designed by Rutan, who also designed Branson’s Virgin Galactic vehicle, SpaceShipTwo. White Knight Two has by far the longest wingspan of any flying machine ever conceived. It is scheduled to be test-flown next year, followed by the launch of the rocket itself in 2018.

How all of these space billionaires will get along in the end could be entertaining. Bezos was heard at the TED conference this year to be somewhat dismissive of Elon Musk’s Mars plans. Meanwhile, SpaceX has unsuccessfully sued Blue Origin over patents, and Blue Origin has unsuccessfully tried to keep SpaceX from leasing Launch Pad 39 at Cape Canaveral from NASA.

Click here to see a short video of the Blue Origin flight on April 30.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

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