Blue Origin’s Bezos: ‘Barnstorming’ to lead satellite industry to new equilibrium
March 13, 2017
WASHINGTON — Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos presented what was widely interpreted as the company’s “reverse SpaceX” roadmap to future orbital success and rocket reusability, saying suborbital tourism with the New Shepard rocket is indispensable to the future operation of the company’s larger New Glenn orbital vehicle.
In a March 7 presentation at Satellite 2017 during which Bezos announced fleet operator Eutelsat as its first commercial satellite customer, for a 2021 mission, Bezos made the case for a practice-makes-perfect strategy of multiple suborbital launches and landings of the New Shepard first stage.
SpaceX, which is preparing to launch a previously flown first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket as soon as this month — on a mission carrying the SES-10 commercial telecommunications satellite — has been perfecting its system through orbital flights.
Bezos recalled that one of the first uses of powered aircraft was for barnstorming stunt pilots, who sold tickets to their aerial exploits at local farms.
More recently, he pointed to Nvidia Corp.’s graphics processing units, which designed for video games but have since found multiple uses in machine learning.
Bezos presented a brief New Glenn mission simulation showing the launch, separation in orbit and then the first stage’s return to a moving vessel:
As the founder and major shareholder of Amazon, Bezos’s net worth has been estimated at around $70 billion, rising and falling with Amazon’s share price. It’s a fortune that enabled Bezos to be patient with Blue Origin.
In his speech, he made no claims for launch dates or launch cadence. He also said nothing about the company’s ambition in the U.S. government market. Blue Origin is an engine supplier to United Launch Alliance, the principal provider of launch services for U.S. government payloads.
Instead, he said Blue Origin will stick to its knitting for awhile, launching and relaunching New Shepard with engines that can be used 100 times.
Here are excerpts from Bezos’s remarks:
“We need to be talking about true operational reusability. There have been attempts in the past, but they haven't succeeded. The reason was that it wasn't operational reusability. There was too much inspection, validation and maintenance of the vehicle that had to be done.
“If you can get to real, operational reusability — and we’ve done that with our New Shepard suborbital vehicle — then you can dramatically lower the cost. The cost of launch is driven by the nonrecurring engineering of designing the vehicle, and by throwing the hardware away.
“Propellant costs are vanishingly small. The propellant costs for a large vehicle they are less than $1 million, especially if it’s a hydrocarbon launch vehicle.
“The launch cost is a couple of orders of magnitude larger than the propellant cost. So there’s a lot of opportunity over time to dramatically shrink costs, and reusability is eight of the 10 points to dramatically shrink costs.
“The other thing you need is practice. That’s one of the reasons we did New Shepard first. New Shepard is a suborbital tourism vehicle. That mission is so important for us, because that mission can fly many, many times a year and we will get so much practice. It’s 110,000 pounds of thrust, a liquid-hydrogen engine, and the practice is directly relevant to our larger launch vehicles. Even the upper stage is a variant to the BE-3.
“We have flown that vehicle into space, above the Karman Line 100 kilometers up, five times, with very small amounts of maintenance between flights — on the order of less than $10,000. That is a really big deal to do that over and over again with the same vehicle.
“The New Shepard landing that you see is very slow, precise and controlled. That is one of the things we wanted to be able to practice. One of the reasons we chose this is: If you want to recover a big orbital booster, there are a few options. You can put wings on it, you can use parachutes — never been done but could be done — and you can do vertical landing.
“I like vertical landing because it’s so scalable. It is the inverted pendulum problem: If you are balancing a broom on your hand, you can. If you try to balance a pencil, it’s very difficult because the pencil has a very low moment of inertia.
“So as the vehicle gets bigger, that inverted pendulum problem actually gets a bit ever to solve. What we’re doing now is the hardest vertical landing problem that we’ll ever have because this si the smallest vehicle that we’ll ever build. So this is a technology that scales really well.
A straight line from tourism to satellite missions and reusability
“New Shepard is leading to our orbital vehicle. All the elements we have had to learn, all the processes we have had to put into place, all the practice we will get with New Sehpard is what will make it possible for us to get the orbital vehicle using the exact same techniques.
“The reusable booster stage of the orbital vehicle is 100 percent informed by all the lessons we learned in the New Shepard program. It is directly relevant.
“The tourism mission is very important. There are many cases in history where entertainment turns out to be a driver of technologies that then become practical and useful for other things.
“In the early days of aviation, one of the first uses of the first planes was barnstorming — landing in farmers’ fields and selling tickets. Likewise, more recently, the GPUs [graphics processing units] that are now used for machine learning and deep learning were invented by Nvidia for video games, to make graphics better.
“So the entertainment industry can often be a driver of technology that then gets repurposed. The tourism mission, because we can fly it so frequently, is going to be a driver of our technology.
“New Glenn can take 13,000 kilograms to GTO and 45,000 kilograms to LEO. The booster stage is designed for operational reuse. The BE-4 engine is designed for a 100-flight lifetime. The strakes you see allow us to operate with high availability in very high wind conditions. That booster needs to go downrange and land on a moving ship and it needs to fly through a wide variety of wind conditions.
“We don't want to constrain the availability of launch based on the availability of the landing booster. We needed to let the vehicle be able to fly back with aerodynamic surface control instead of with propulsion. If you want lots of cross range to get back tot the landing ship in unknown wind environments, you really want to be able to do that aerodynamically.
“It’s designed so that we don't need to do an in-space deceleration burn, which saves on propellant. it’s a performance and efficiency improvement, not having to do that in space deceleration burn.
“We have six landing gear so we have landing gear out capability. This thing can land with five landing gear.
“You see the blue plume at launch because the BE-4 uses liquefied natural gas. The upper-stage engine is a variant to the BE-4. Then there’s RCS [reaction control system] reorienting and landing on a ship that is under way. We can use stabilizers to stabilize the ships even in big waves.
Eutelsat: When New Glenn presented itself, we jumped on it
Eutelsat Chief Executive Rudolph Belmer joined Bezos on the Satellite 2017 stage and said:
“This is a signed contract. We look for flexibility, reliability, a partnership spirit, and innovation. Our role as an industry leader is to stimulate competition so that there is a stream of innovation in the industry. When the opportunity of New Glenn presented itself, we jumped on it. It is phenomenally good news for our industry to attract such a supplier with such large ambition to the industry.
“Eutelsat has been the first customer on [different versions of the ] Atlas and Delta, and on Ariane — our French launcher.”
Bezos on a ‘new equilibrium’ for the commercial satellite industry
“Our goal — and we wont stop until we achieve it — is to dramatically lower launch costs. Its not going to be easy and it’s going to take time. But when we reach that goal it will grow the entire industry.
We will reach a new equilibrium in this industry. Now, launch costs are expensive, satellites are expensive and have long lifetimes. In the future, once launch costs are much lower, satellites can come down in cost, they will be less precious so you’ll be able to take more technology risk, the lifetimes will be lower, you will replace them more frequently, you reach a new equilibrium — and that will be a much larger industry.”
Peter B. de Selding