If you’re near Oshkosh, Wisconsin from the 24th to the 30th, you’ll have an opportunity to check out Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket and astronaut space capsule at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s 65th annual fly-in convention. Blue Origin, funded by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, calls the New Shepard “fully reusable,” explaining:
The New Shepard system is a fully reusable vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) space vehicle. Blue Origin explains:
The system consists of a pressurized capsule atop a booster. The combined vehicles launch vertically, accelerating for approximately two and a half minutes, before the engine cuts off. The capsule then separates from the booster to coast quietly into space. After a few minutes of free fall, the booster performs an autonomously controlled rocket-powered vertical landing, while the capsule lands softly under parachutes, both ready to be used again.
Reusability allows us to fly the system again and again. With each flight, we’ll continuously improve the affordability of space exploration and research, opening space for all.
The capsule too is something to behold. The company writes:
The New Shepard capsule’s interior is an ample 530 cubic feet—offering over 10 times the room Alan Shepard had on his Mercury flight. It seats six astronauts and is large enough for you to float freely and turn weightless somersaults.
The capsule will also boast the “largest windows in space.”
Blue Origin isn’t the only American company revolutionizing spaceflight though. SpaceX, with its inexpensive Falcon 9 rockets is well on the way to beating the Russians on cost for commercial launches. Eric Berger writing at ArsTechnica explained earlier this month that the Russians are attempting to lower costs in response to SpaceX’s competition, but it may be hard to do.
For a long time, with its low production costs and efficient fleet of rockets, Russia has been the leading player in the global market for satellite launches. Some recent failures with its Soyuz and Proton boosters have not helped, but the biggest threat to Russia’s preeminence now clearly comes from SpaceX.
Publicly, at least, Russian officials were slow to acknowledge the threat from SpaceX. Even last year, the country’s space leaders dismissed SpaceX’s efforts to build reusable launch systems to lower overall costs. But that tone has started to shift in 2017, as SpaceX has begun to fly used boosters and demonstrate this emerging capability.
Now, in a new interview posted on the site of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, its chief executive Igor Komarov acknowledges that SpaceX poses a “serious challenge” to his country’s launch industry. Accordingly, Komarov outlined a strategy for how he believes Russia will compete with SpaceX over the next five years, and his response to this is pretty telling.
In the short-term, Komarov told the site Russia will work to control production costs to compete on price with SpaceX. And over the next five years, he said, the country will finalize development of the Soyuz 5 rocket, a medium-lift vehicle in the same lift class as the Falcon 9 rocket. The expendable Soyuz 5 would be less complicated than earlier versions of the Soyuz family while costing as much as 20 percent less to fly. “If we achieve this goal, it will ensure its competitiveness,” Komarov said. He is betting that SpaceX, with its aggressive push toward reusability, will only succeed in reducing the cost of launch by 15 to 20 percent over the next five years.
There is a potentially fundamental flaw with this strategy, however. SpaceX has been circumspect about the reduction in costs for flight-proven boosters, but it did quote a 30-percent discount for the flight of its first used first stage. This seems like a starting point for lower costs rather than an end point.
With Bezos and Musk both entering the rocket market, it seems ripe for the eventual effects of my “Bezos Law,” which states that any industry Jeff Bezos enters will see a reduction in cost to the consumer.