How will Blue Origin work?


Jeff Bezos made his fortune by starting Amazon.com. Not ­content with merely sending packages to your door, now he's hoping to send you to space.
Jeff Bezos made his fortune by starting Amazon.com. Not ­content with merely sending packages to your door, now he's hoping to send you to space.
Rex Rystedt//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Frequently named in Forbes Magazine lists of richest people, Jeff Bezos is one of the most successful visionaries of Internet business. He founded Amazon.com, an online marketplace for books, in 1994, when the Internet was still young. The Web site exploded in popularity, and later Bezos incorporated movies, music, electronics, apparel and food into Amazon's inventory. Amazon has made Bezos a certified billionaire.

So what's he doing with all that wealth? He's entered the commercial space race.

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Unlike many of the other space race contenders, Bezos has kept his space project quiet. In 2000, Bezos started a Seattle-based company called Blue Origin to build and test rockets. But for several years, he virtually kept the company a secret, releasing only a few details about its purpose and plans. In 2003, the media researched state documents to confirm Blue Origin was involved in spacecraft research [source: Newsweek]. Then, Bezos piqued people's curiosity when he bought 165,000 acres in West Texas. He even secured secrecy by having locals sign confidentiality agreements [source: Mangalindan].

In 2005, he finally divulged to a local paper that he would be using the land to launch Blue Origin's rockets. Since then, he's opened up a bit, revealing more details, largely because he's looking to recruit talented engineers for his team. One notable figure, science fiction author Neal Stephenson, has already spent some time working for Bezos' team. Though he only minored in physics in college, Stephenson tinkers with electronics and has always immersed himself in scientific subjects. In an interview, Stephenson described himself as Blue Origin's "Spock," the "Star Trek" character who offers his thoughts whenever he gets the chance [source: Slashdot].

Something else separates Bezos from his fellow commercial space racers -- he doesn't seem to be racing at all. He's taking his sweet time, and he's proud of it, evidenced by Blue Origin's motto, "gradatim ferociter," which translates loosely to "step by step, ferociously."

Slow and steady seems to be working for Blue Origin. It tested a vehicle named Goddard and released a video showing that it was a success. Ultimately, Bezos hopes to send tourists on suborbital space trips on a weekly basis by 2010. Can he do it?

Read the next page to find out more about his plans.

Blue Origin Rockets: The Goddard and the New Shepard

The Goddard test vehicle successfully completed the test launch that sent it up 285 feet.
The Goddard test vehicle successfully completed the test launch that sent it up 285 feet.
Blue Origin

Although Bezos has remained somewhat secretive about Blue Origin, he has offered clues about his plans, and we can derive some information from U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) documents.

­Blue Origin has constructed and test flown the Goddard, which was named for rocket pioneer Robert Goddard. Many compare the Goddard to the DC-X, a NASA test vehicle, because of its appearance and launching style. The Goddard, which has a cone-shaped nose with a blunt bottom, both launches and lands in a vertical position and sits on four legs. A video released by Blue Origin shows the Goddard completing a test flight where it reached an altitude of 285 feet (about 87 meters). This height may seem unimpressive, but it aligns with Blue Origin's step by step philosophy. It plans to start with low-altitude flights and progressively reach higher altitudes [source: FAA].

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The Goddard, as a test vehicle, is the precursor to what will eventually send tourists to space, the New Shepard. Named after the first U.S. astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, the New Shepard will be a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) and take space tourists up to altitudes of 325,000 feet (99,060 meters) [source: FAA]. This amounts to more than 61 miles (98 kilometers), which qualifies as space altitude. The U.S. military considers anyone who exceeds a 50-mile (80 kilometers) vertical height a certifiable astronaut [source: Jenkins]. To accommodate it for commercial tourism, the vehicle will seat three or more people in the crew capsule.

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The rockets propelling New Shepard to suborbital heights will run on rocket-grade kerosene and high test peroxide (HTP), which is a highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide solution. The FAA document describes a few variations about the flight of the New Shepard, which will last fewer than 10 minutes from start to finish:

  • In one scenario, the ship's engines will shut off after two minutes, allowing it to coast to suborbital heights. Then, upon descent, the engines will restart, allowing the vehicle to land safely and in one piece on a landing pad.
  • In another scenario, the crew capsule separates from the rocket propulsion module during flight. The crew capsule would then land safely by taking advantage of the slowing effect of atmospheric drag, perhaps with parachutes.

Bezos hasn't yet revealed how much the price of a ride on his New Shepard will be, but the fact that he's hoping to send three people up a week suggests a comparatively cheap ticket. He states on the Blue Origin Web site that one of its main goals is to make space travel cheaper and available for more people [source: Bezos].

For more information on space travel and to see a video of Goddard's successful test flight, investigate the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Bezos, Jeff. "Development Flight, and We are Hiring." Blue Origin. Jan. 2, 2007. (June 6, 2008) http://public.blueorigin.com/letter.htm
  • FAA. "Final Environmental Assessment for the Blue Origin West Texas Commercial Launch Site." Federal Aviation Administration. August, 2006. (June 6, 2008) http://www.faa.gov/about/office_org/headquarters_offices/ast/media/20060829_Blue_Origin_EA_Signed.pdf
  • Jenkins, Dennis. "Schneider Walks the Walk." NASA. Oct. 21, 2005. (June 10, 2008) http://www.nasa.gov/centers/dryden/news/X-Press/stories/2005/102105_Schneider.html
  • Mangalindan, Mylene. "Buzz in West Texas is about Jeff Bezos space craft launch site." Post-Gazette Now. Nov. 10, 2006. (June 6, 2008) http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06314/737330-84.stm
  • Newsweek. "Bezos in Space." Newsweek. May 5, 2003. (June 6, 2008) http://www.newsweek.com/id/59199
  • Slashdot. "Neal Stephenson Responds with Wit and Humor." Slashdot.com. Oct. 20, 2004. (June 6, 2008) http://interviews.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=04/10/20/1518217