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SpaceX vs. Blue Origin: The bickering titans of new space


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In the past three years, SpaceX has made incredible progress in their program of reusability. In the practiceÂ’s first year, the young space company led by serial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk has performed three successful commercial reuses of Falcon 9 boosters in approximately eight months, and has at least two more reused flights scheduled before 2017 is out. Blue Origin, headed and funded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon fame, is perhaps most famous for its supreme confidence, best illustrated by Bezos offhandedly

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after the company first recovered the booster stage of its Falcon 9 rocket in 2015.

Blue Origin began in the early 2000s as a pet project of Bezos, a long-time fan of spaceflight and proponent of developing economies in space. After more than a decade of persistent development and increasingly complex testbeds, Blue Origin began a multi-year program of test flights with its small New Shepard launch vehicle. Designed to eventually launch tourists to the veritable edge of EarthÂ’s atmosphere in a capsule atop it, New Shepard began its test flights in 2015 and after one partial failure, has completed five successful flights in a row. The space tourism company has subtly and not-so-subtly belittled SpaceXÂ’s accomplishments over the last several years, and has engendered a fair bit of hostility towards it as a result.

Admittedly, CEO Elon Musk nurtured high expectations for the consequences of reuse, and has frequently discussed SpaceXÂ’s ambition to reduce the cost of access to orbit by a factor of 10 to 100. However, after several reuses, it is clear that costs have decreased no more than 10-20%. What gives?

Well, Musk’s many comments on magnitudes of cost reduction were clearly premised upon rapid and complete reuse of both stages of Falcon 9, best evidenced by a concept video the company released in 2011.

The reality was considerably harder and Musk clearly underestimated the difficulty of second stage reuse, something he himself has admitted. COO Gwynne Shotwell was interviewed earlier this summer and discussed

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, and acknowledged that second stage reuse was no longer a real priority, although the company will likely attempt second stage recovery as a validation of future technologies. Instead of pursuing the development of a completely reusable Falcon 9, SpaceX is instead pushing ahead with the development of a much larger rocket, BFR. BFR being designed to enable the sustainable colonization of space by realizing MuskÂ’s original ambition of magnitudes-cheaper orbital launch capabilities.

Competition on the horizon?

Meanwhile, SpaceXÂ’s only near-term competitor interested in serious reuse has made gradual progress over the last several years, accelerating its pace of development more recently. Blue OriginÂ’s second New Shepard vehicle, designed to serve the suborbital space tourism industry, conducted an impressive five successful launches and landings over the course of 2016 before being summarily retired. NS2Â’s antecedent suffered a failure while attempting its first landing and was destroyed in 2015, but Blue learned quickly from the issues of Shepard 1 and

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to its suborbital launch facilities near Van Horn, Texas. While NS3 is aiming for an inaugural flight later this year,
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and could support BlueÂ’s first crewed suborbital launches in 2018.

More significant waves were made with an announcement in 2016 that Blue was pursuing development of a partially reusable orbital-class launch vehicle, the massive New Glenn. On paper, New Glenn is quite a bit larger than even SpaceX’s Falcon 9, and appears to likely be more capable than the company’s “

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” while completely recovering its boost stage. In a completed, manufactured, and demonstrably reliable form, New Glenn would be an extraordinarily impressive and capable launch vehicle that could undoubtedly catapult Blue Origin into position of true competition with SpaceX’s reusability efforts.

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However, while Blue Origin executives brag about “operational reusability” and tastelessly lampoon efforts that

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, the unmentioned company implicated in those barbs has begun to routintely and commercially reuse orbital-class boosters five times the size of BlueÂ’s suborbital testbed, New Shepard.

Apples to oranges

The only point at which Blue Origin poses a risk to SpaceXÂ’s business can be found in a comparison of funding sources. SpaceX first successes (and failures) were funded out of Elon MuskÂ’s own pocket, but nearly all of the funding that followed was won through competitive government contracts and rounds of private investment. To put it more simply, SpaceX is a business that must balance costs and returns, while Blue Origin is funded exclusively out of billionaire CEO Jeff BezosÂ’ pocket.

As a result of being completely privately funded, BezosÂ’ deep pockets could render Blue more flexible than SpaceX when pricing launches. If Blue chooses to aggressively price New Glenn by accounting for booster reusability, it could pose a threat to SpaceXÂ’s own business strategy. If SpaceX is unable to recoup its investment in reusability before New Glenn is regularly conducting multiple commercial missions per year, likely no earlier than 2021 or 2022, SpaceXÂ’s Falcon 9 pricing could be rendered distinctly noncompetitive.

However, this concern seems almost entirely misplaced. SpaceX has half a decade of experience mass-producing orbital-class (reusable) rockets, (reusable) fairings, and propulsion systems, whereas Blue Origin at best has minimal experience manufacturing a handful of suborbital vehicles over a period of a few years. Blue has a respectable amount of experience with their BE-3 hydrolox propulsion system, and that will likely transfer over to the BE-3U vacuum variant to be used for New Glenn’s second stage. The large methalox rocket engine (BE-4) that will power New Glenn’s first stage also conducted its first-ever hot-fire just weeks ago, a major milestone in propulsion development but also a reminder that BE-4 has an exhaustive regime of engineering verification and flight qualification testing ahead of it.

Perhaps more importantly, the companyÂ’s relative success with New ShepardÂ’s launch, recovery, and reuse has not and cannot move beyond small suborbital hops, and thus cannot provide the experience at the level of orbital rocketry. New Shepard is admittedly capable of reaching an altitude of 100km,

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. The first stage of Falcon 9, however, is approximately four times as tall and three times the mass of New Shepard, and boosters attempting recovery during geostationary missions routinely reach
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of New Shepard, entering the thicker atmosphere at more than 2300 m/s (1500-1800 m/s for LEO missions). Falcon 9Â’s larger mass and velocity translates into intense reentry heating and aerodynamic forces, best demonstrated by the glowing aluminum grid fins that can often be seen in SpaceXÂ’s live coverage of booster recovery. Blue OriginÂ’s New Glenn concept is extremely impressive on paper, but the company will have to pull off an extraordinary leap of technological maturation to move directly from suborbital single-stage hops to multi-stage orbital rocketry. BlueÂ’s accomplishments with New Shepard are nothing to scoff at, but they are a far cry from routine orbital launch services.

SpaceXÂ’s future fast approaches

Translating back to the new establishment, Falcon 9 will likely remain SpaceX’s workhorse rocket for some five or more years, at least until BFR can prove itself to be a reliable and affordable replacement. This change in focus, combined with the downsides of second stage recovery and reuse on a Falcon 9-sized vehicle, means that SpaceX will ‘only’ end up operationally reusing first stages and fairings from the vehicle. The second stage accounts for approximately 20-30% of Falcon 9’s total cost, suggesting that rapid and complete reuse of the fairing and first stage could more than halve its ~$62 million price. Yet this too ignores another mundane fact of corporate life SpaceX must face. Its executives, Musk included,

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to at least partially recoup the ~$1 billion that was invested to develop reuse. Assuming a partial 10% reduction in cost to reuse customers and profit margins of 50% with rapid and total reuse of the first stage and fairing, 20 to 30 commercial reuses would recoup most or all of SpaceXÂ’s reusability investment.

Musk recently revealed that SpaceX is aiming to complete 30 launches in 2018, and that figure will likely continue to grow in 2019, assuming no major anomalies occur. Manufacturing will rapidly become the main choke point for increased launch cadence, suggesting that drastically higher cadences will largely depend upon first stage reuse with minimal refurbishment, which just so happens to be the goal of the Falcon 9’s upcoming Block 5 iteration. Even if the modifications only manage a handful of launches without refurbishment, rather than the ten flights being pursued, each additional flight without maintenance will effectively multiply SpaceX’s manufacturing capabilities. More bluntly: ten Falcon 9s  capable of five reflights could do the same job of 50 brand new rockets with 1/5th of the manufacturing backend.

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Assuming that upcoming reuses proceed without significant failures and Falcon 9 Block 5 subsumes all manufacturing sometime in 2018 or 2019, it is entirely possible that SpaceX will undergo an extraordinarily rapid phase change from exendability to reusability. Mirroring 2017, we can imagine that SpaceX’s Hawthorne factory will continue to churn out at least 10 to 20 Block 5 Falcon 9s over the course of 2018. Assuming 5 to 10 maintenance-free reuses and a lifespan of as many as 100 flights with intermittent refurb, a single year of manufacturing could provide SpaceX with enough first stages to launch anywhere from 50 to 2000 missions. The reality will inevitably find itself somewhere between those extremely pessimistic and optimistic bookends, and they of course do not account for fairings, second stages, or expendable flights.

If we assume that the proportional cost of Falcon 9’s many components very roughly approximates the amount of manufacturing backend needed to produce them, downsizing Falcon 9 booster production by a factor of two or more could free a huge fraction of SpaceX’s workforce and floor space to be repurposed for fairing and second stage production, as well as the company’s Mars efforts. Such a phase change would also free up a considerable fraction of the capital SpaceX continually invests in its manufacturing infrastructure and workforce, capital that could then be used to ready SpaceX’s facilities for production and testing of its Mars-focused BFR and BFS.

“Gradatim ferociter”

It cannot be overstated that the speculation in this article is speculation. Nevertheless, it is speculation built on real information provided over the years by SpaceXÂ’s own executives. Rough estimates like this offer a glimpse into a new launch industry paradigm that could be only a year or two away and could allow SpaceX to begin aggressively pursuing its goal of enabling a sustainable human presence on Mars and throughout the Solar System.

Blue Origin’s future endeavors shine on paper and their goal of enabling millions to work and live space are admirable, but the years between the present and a future of routine orbital missions for the company may not be kind. The engineering hurdles that litter the path to orbital rocketry are unforgiving and can only be exacerbated by blind overconfidence, a lesson that is often only learned the hard way. Blue Origin’s proud motto “Gradatim ferociter” roughly translates to “Step by step, ferociously.” One can only hope that some level of humility and sobriety might temper that ferocity before customers entrust New Glenn with their infrastructural foundations and passengers entrust New Shepard with their lives.

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    • misette  »  Gilles h

      Bonsoir Gilles
      S'il te plait, aurais-tu le samedi après-midi de l'assemblée régionale 2021
      Je te remercie
       
      · 2 replies
    • Eric Ouellet

      Soyons reconnaissant devant toutes ses oeuvres
       
      Le Dieu des dieux, Jéhovah, parle ;
      il convoque la terre
      depuis le soleil levant jusqu’au soleil couchant.
      De Sion, la perfection de la beauté, Dieu rayonne.
      Notre Dieu viendra et ne pourra pas garder le silence.
      Il y a un feu dévorant devant lui,
      et une violente tempête fait rage autour de lui.
      Il convoque les cieux et la terre
      pour juger son peuple :
       « Rassemblez auprès de moi mes fidèles,
      ceux qui concluent une alliance avec moi par un sacrifice. »
      Les cieux proclament sa justice,
      car Dieu lui-même est Juge. (Sèla.)
       « Écoute, ô mon peuple, je vais parler ;
      ô Israël, je vais témoigner contre toi.
      Je suis Dieu, ton Dieu.
      Ce n’est pas pour tes sacrifices que je te réprimande,
      ni pour tes holocaustes, qui sont constamment devant moi.
      Je n’ai pas besoin de prendre un taureau de ta maison
      ni des boucs de tes enclos.
      Car tous les animaux sauvages de la forêt m’appartiennent,
      même les bêtes sur mille montagnes.
      Je connais tous les oiseaux des montagnes;
      les innombrables animaux des champs sont à moi.
      Si j’avais faim, je ne te le dirais pas,
      car le sol productif m’appartient, avec tout ce qui s’y trouve.
      Vais-je manger la viande des taureaux
      et boire le sang des boucs?
      Offre en sacrifice à Dieu ta reconnaissance
      et acquitte-toi des vœux que tu as faits au Très-Haut;
      appelle-moi en temps de détresse.
      Je te secourrai, et tu me glorifieras. »
      Mais Dieu dira au méchant :
      « De quel droit récites-tu mes prescriptions
      ou parles-tu de mon alliance?
      Car tu détestes la discipline,
      et sans cesse tu tournes le dos à mes paroles.
      Quand tu vois un voleur, tu l’approuves,
      et tu fréquentes les personnes adultères.
      Avec ta bouche, tu répands le mal,
      et tu attaches la tromperie à ta langue.
      Tu t’assieds et tu parles contre ton frère;
      tu révèles les défauts du fils de ta propre mère.
      Quand tu faisais ces choses, je gardais le silence,
      alors tu t’es dit que j’étais comme toi.
      Mais, à présent, je vais te réprimander
      et exposer ce que j’ai contre toi.
      Réfléchissez à ceci, s’il vous plaît, vous qui oubliez Dieu,
      sinon je vous déchirerai et il n’y aura personne pour vous secourir.
      Celui qui offre en sacrifice sa reconnaissance me glorifie ;
      et à celui qui est déterminé à bien agir
      je ferai voir le salut de Dieu. »

      · 0 replies
    • Eric Ouellet

      Dieu aime les prières et la sincérité de ses serviteurs humbles
       
      Dieu aime la bonté de coeur envers autrui et non aux sacrifices et holocaustes d'animaux sauvages et domistiques.
      Dans ton amour fidèle, accorde-moi ta faveur, ô Dieu.
      Dans ta grande miséricorde, efface mes transgressions.
      Lave-moi complètement de ma faute
      et purifie-moi de mon péché.
      Car je suis bien conscient de mes transgressions,
      et mon péché est constamment devant moi.
      C’est contre toi que j'ai failli, oui j'ai fait le mal
      devant tes yeux.
      Ainsi, tu es juste quand tu parles,
      tu es droit quand tu juges.
      Vois ! Je suis né coupable
      et, depuis l’instant où ma mère m’a conçu, je suis pécheur.
      Vois ! Tu prends plaisir à la vérité dans le fond du cœur;
      enseigne-moi la vraie sagesse, au plus profond de moi.
      Purifie-moi de mon péché avec l’hysope, pour que je sois pur;
      lave-moi, pour que je sois plus blanc que la neige.
      Fais-moi entendre le son de l’allégresse et de la joie,
      pour que les os que tu as broyés se réjouissent.
      Détourne ton visage de mes péchés
      et efface toutes mes fautes.
      Crée en moi un cœur pur, ô Dieu,
      et mets en moi un esprit nouveau, ferme.
      Ne me chasse pas de ta présence ;
      ne m’enlève pas ton esprit saint.
      Redonne-moi la joie d’être sauvé par toi;
      éveille en moi la volonté de t’obéir.
      Je veux enseigner tes chemins aux transgresseurs,
      pour que les pécheurs reviennent à toi.
      Libère-moi de la culpabilité de meurtre, ô Dieu, mon Dieu sauveur,
      pour que ma langue puisse proclamer joyeusement ta justice.
      Ô Jéhovah, ouvre mes lèvres
      pour que ma bouche proclame ta louange.
      Car tu ne veux pas de sacrifices — autrement, j’en donnerais ;
      tu ne prends pas plaisir aux holocaustes.
      Le sacrifice qui plaît à Dieu, c’est un esprit brisé ;
      un cœur brisé et broyé, ô Dieu, tu ne le rejetteras pas.
      Dans ta bienveillance, agis pour le bien de Sion ;
      bâtis les murailles de Jérusalem.
      Alors tu prendras plaisir aux sacrifices de justice,
      aux holocaustes et aux offrandes totales ;
      alors on offrira des taureaux sur ton autel.


      · 0 replies
    • Eric Ouellet

      Dieu aime les prières et la sincérité de ses serviteurs humbles
       
      Dieu aime la bonté de coeur envers autrui et non aux sacrifices et holocaustes d'animaux sauvages et domistiques.
      Dans ton amour fidèle, accorde-moi ta faveur, ô Dieu.
      Dans ta grande miséricorde, efface mes transgressions.
      Lave-moi complètement de ma faute
      et purifie-moi de mon péché.
      Car je suis bien conscient de mes transgressions,
      et mon péché est constamment devant moi.
      C’est contre toi que j'ai failli, oui j'ai fait le mal
      devant tes yeux.
      Ainsi, tu es juste quand tu parles,
      tu es droit quand tu juges.
      Vois ! Je suis né coupable
      et, depuis l’instant où ma mère m’a conçu, je suis pécheur.
      Vois ! Tu prends plaisir à la vérité dans le fond du cœur;
      enseigne-moi la vraie sagesse, au plus profond de moi.
      Purifie-moi de mon péché avec l’hysope, pour que je sois pur;
      lave-moi, pour que je sois plus blanc que la neige.
      Fais-moi entendre le son de l’allégresse et de la joie,
      pour que les os que tu as broyés se réjouiss.
      Détourne ton visage de mes péchés
      et efface toutes mes fautes.
      Crée en moi un cœur pur, ô Dieu,
      et mets en moi un esprit nouveau, ferme.
      Ne me chasse pas de ta présence ;
      ne m’enlève pas ton esprit saint.
      Redonne-moi la joie d’être sauvé par toi;
      éveille en moi la volonté de t’obéir.
      Je veux enseigner tes chemins aux transgresseurs,
      pour que les pécheurs reviennent à toi.
      Libère-moi de la culpabilité de meurtre, ô Dieu, mon Dieu sauveur,
      pour que ma langue puisse proclamer joyeusement ta justice.
      Ô Jéhovah, ouvre mes lèvres
      pour que ma bouche proclame ta louange.
      Car tu ne veux pas de sacrifices — autrement, j’en donnerais ;
      tu ne prends pas plaisir aux holocaustes.
      Le sacrifice qui plaît à Dieu, c’est un esprit brisé ;
      un cœur brisé et broyé, ô Dieu, tu ne le rejetteras pas.
      Dans ta bienveillance, agis pour le bien de Sion ;
      bâtis les murailles de Jérusalem.
      Alors tu prendras plaisir aux sacrifices de justice,
      aux holocaustes et aux offrandes totales ;
      alors on offrira des taureaux sur ton autel.


    • Shirley Lowery

      Hello to all my Spiritual Brothers and Sisters! I haven't been on here in a while, because as of August 17, 2021, I moved to Commerce, Texas! I was on the Commerce Housing Authority Waiting list since 2019!  I was selected to receive my one bedroom apartment, with my Chihuahua, with my precious Babyboy, who is now 16 years old! and I signed my lease on August 5, 2021, and had my gas turned on! We have a very small Congregation of 71 publishers, including me!  I haven't been to our beautiful Kingdomhall yet, but I did take some photos of the outside of it! I'm praying that we are one of the Congregations, chosen to start attending in person, our pilot meetings that many countries are now attending! Puerto Rico, Chile, and Australia are a few chosen right now! There's three Shirley's in my Congregation!  Two elderly sisters, one is white, she's No.1 , and another  elderly sister who is black, she's No.2, and I'm ShirleyL3!  One sister lovingly named me that! I feel special now! I haven't been given an assignment yet, but soon I will!  I really enjoyed our "POWERFUL by FAITH" Regional Convention so much!  We needed all the Spiritual Encouragement which focused on all of us! Also, all those beautiful videos, and the real life experiences! July 29, 1972, was my baptism date! 49 years now, serving Jehovah! I was 15 when I dedicated my life to serve Jehovah! I'm 64 years young now, and still faithfully serving Jehovah! I do telephone witnessing now! Which lots of people hang up on me, but I'm used to it now! All that matters is that I'm giving Jehovah my best!  I'm so excited about our Special Campaign now!  Only Jehovah reads hearts!  Hopefully lots of people will show some interest!  This year 2021 is almost over! I received both doses of Moderna, and have to wait till I turn 65 in May, to receive my Booster shot! We lost over 17, 000 brothers and sisters to Covid-19! My prayers are with them and their families! Soon, as Jehovah has promised, they will welcome their loved ones back in their lives, during the resurrection! I love it here so much, everyone is very friendly! I just love my Congregation too! I hope everyone makes their personal decision to get vaccinated! Also I hope everyone has a great rest of 2021! Let's see what Jehovah has in store for us in 2022! Were having our Circuit Assembly on November 27, 2021!  Take care of yourselves, be safe, and always trust in Jehovah!!!  Have a great weekend everybody, agape love, Sister Shirley Ann Lowery! 
      · 1 reply
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