10 Major Players in the Private Sector Space Race

Blue Origin
NASA visits with Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, third from left, in December 2011. You can see Blue Origin's crew capsule in the background. Photo courtesy NASA/Bill Ingalls

Have you ever heard the phrase gradatim ferociter? Very roughly, it translates to "step-by-step, fiercely."

That's the motto of Blue Origin, developer of the New Shepard vertical-takeoff-and-landing spacecraft: step by step, fiercely -- and secretly. The company, established by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, operates mostly behind closed doors, opening them (briefly) to test its nine-engined rocket pod prototype. The suborbital astronaut transport was inspired by the old DC-X craft developed by McDonnell Douglas for NASA and the Defense Department.

Quiet as the company might be, its whispers made NASA sit up and take notice. The space agency ponied up $22 million in second-round Commercial Crew Development funding for the strut-legged craft, atop the $3.7 million in first-round funding it awarded Blue Origin earlier to support development of a Launch Escape System (LES) and a composite crew module pressure vessel for structural testing.

Blue Origin has support where it counts: namely, Congress. That leverage proved useful when the company lodged a September 2013 protest with the Government Accountability Office concerning NASA's bidding process for launch pad 39A. The company voiced concerns that a single company might monopolize the pad, granting it an unfair competitive advantage [source: Boyle].