reported by ArsTechnica: Friday’s launch of the New Shepard rocket in West Texas renewed the tired debate about whether Blue Origin or SpaceX has achieved more in the reusable spaceflight game. These discussions first flared up in November, when no less than Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk sparred on Twitter over the magnitude of New Shepard’s first flight into space and subsequent vertical landing. Ultimately the debate is vacuous and completely misses the big picture.
Each company has achievements to be proud of. Blue Origin landed first and now has taken the next critical step toward full reusability by reflying a booster. SpaceX also landed vertically, about a month after Blue Origin. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is a much larger and more powerful booster, flying a more dynamically challenging profile. Technically, its landing was more impressive. The company is also developing this capability while delivering payloads into orbit for NASA and the private sector.
There is no “better.” Both companies are kicking ass. I think a lot of people who read this probably share a common goal with me: we’d like to see wider access to space. We’d like to see colonization of the Moon, or maybe Mars, or maybe beyond. We’d like to see a highway to the stars. There is only one way this happens: dramatically reducing the cost of getting into space. And the way to do this is by reusing your rockets and spacecraft.
When Bezos, Musk, and many of us were kids, we kind of assumed NASA was going to take care of that. Bezos and Musk went into the dot-com business, and after they made their billions, they realized the future promised in Star Trek hadn’t come to pass. The ways humans get into space today hasn’t changed much since the 1960s, when the Russian Soyuz spacecraft began flying.
NASA tried reusability with the space shuttle. But the vehicle had tremendous turnaround costs after each flight. The shuttle had more than 20,000 tiles as part of its heat shield, each individually numbered, each of which had to be checked. As a NASA program, the shuttle relied on multiple large aerospace contractors working on the program. In the end, the reusable vehicle which aimed to slash the cost of access to space to $25 per pound ended up closer to $25,000 per pound.
The space agency still has its expensive, traditional contractors today, but it has given up reusability. NASA’s oft-touted Space Launch System is entirely expendable, including its engines. The same engines, RS-25s, powered the shuttle and were reused. Now they will be fired once during a SLS launch and then thrown away.NASA says it needs this huge rocket to explore Mars, and that only by delivering exceptionally large payloads to space can it stage human missions to Mars. And that may be right. But along with this large rocket, which may cost as much as $2 billion or $3 billion per launch, NASA will need budgets it has not seen since the days of Apollo to get close to Mars. Unfortunately there is no indication that Congress or a new president will be willing to add billions of dollars a year to NASA’s budget. For example, Donald Trump has said he is more interested in potholes than space.
Bezos and Musk appear to have realized this long ago. They have built their space businesses around low-cost, reusable vehicles. SpaceX has already driven down costs in the satellite launch market. And now both men are trying to make the huge leap from their low-cost boosters to fully reusable vehicles.
What's frustrating is that this whole debate has been miscast as Blue Origin versus SpaceX. This is, rather, new ideas and motivations set against the status quo. Bezos and Musk have made their fortunes, and now they have invested some of those resources to try and bring about the futures they thought they were going to experience by now. They want thousands—millions, even—of people to live and work in space.The two dot-com billionaires are working against decades of spaceflight inertia, in both NASA and its mandated civil servant workforce, but even more so in the large, influential aerospace contractors accustomed to large, cost-plus contracts. NASA does amazing things, very hard things like flying past Pluto or building a technical marvel like the International Space Station, but what it has not accomplished during its half century of existence is making space cheap, or fast.
It’s far from clear that Bezos and Musk will succeed as the technological hurdle they are trying to jump is very high. But each is used to finding himself in an upstart position against large, vested interests. Bezos first took on powerful book publishers with Amazon, and later Wal-Mart and other gargantuan retailers to become one of world’s largest online stores. Musk has taken on his share of entrenched competitors, too. PayPal took business from the banking industry, and Tesla has tilted at the automotive and fossil fuel industries.
They are now seeking to do the same to the aerospace industry. Reusable rockets are the disruptive technology of spaceflight. They have the potential to radically cut costs and, within our lifetimes, take us back to the Moon and beyond.
Fortunately, since their initial Twitter dust-up back in November, Bezos and Musk have appeared to bury the hatchet, at least in public. It is true both men have large egos and both want the glory of democratizing space. But they also share a common goal, and they must realize that competition can only spur them to greater heights.
So we should celebrate the achievements of both Blue Origin and SpaceX, not bicker about whose rocket is bigger, went further, or landed first. Both companies are tackling hard problems, largely with private money. Both companies are trying to push the frontier opened by Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepard more than half a century ago. And if either succeeds, we all win.