Blue Origin CEO and founder Jeff Bezos stunned SATELLITE 2017 before the Opening General Session by bringing Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer on stage to announce Eutelsat as the first customer of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket set to debut in 2020.
“We think that the role of an industry leader is to stimulate competition so that there is a stream of innovation and access to space is easier. Once the opportunity of Blue Origin presented itself, we jumped on it,” Belmer said. In searching for a launch provider, Belmer said his priorities are working with a company that is flexible, reliable and willing to foster a “partnership spirit.”
“It’s very important to us to build up this kind of spirit because the relationship between a launch agency and a satellite operator needs to be intimate,” he explained.
The agreement with Blue Origin covers the launch of a geostationary satellite in the 2021 to 2022 timeframe. The New Glenn launcher will be compatible with virtually all Eutelsat satellites, giving flexibility to allocate the mission 12 months ahead of launch.
Bezos took a moment to describe some of New Glenn’s idiosyncratic features, including the large aerodynamic strakes on the rocket’s aft end. “The two-stage variant of New Glenn has quite a bit of capability: it can take 13 metric tons to GTO, 45 metric tons to LEO, and the booster stage is designed for operable reuse. The BE-4 engine is designed for a 100-flight lifetime,” he said. According to Bezos, the rocket’s strakes are what allow it to operate with high availability even in high wind conditions. “We put a lot of effort into letting the vehicle fly back with aerodynamic surface control instead of with propulsion,” he said.
As for the future of the industry as a whole, Bezos is thinking beyond orbiting just satellites and emphasized the importance of Blue Origin’s mission to bring tourists to space aboard New Shepard and New Glenn.
“There are many historical cases where entertainment turns out to be a driver of technologies that then become very practical and utilitarian for other things,” he said. “Even in the early days of aviation one of the first uses of planes was ‘barnstorming,’” or stunt pilot performances. A more recent example, Bezos noted, is that Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) now used for machine learning were initially invented for video games.
Ultimately, Bezos hopes to refine the reusability of Blue Origin’s rockets to dramatically lower launch costs. “When we do achieve that goal, we will reach a new equilibrium in this industry. Once launch costs are lower in the future, satellites will be less precious so you can take more technological risks. You’ll place them more frequently and their lifetimes will be shorter,” he said. “The new equilibrium will be a much larger industry.”
Bezos’ goal is to reach what he calls “true operational reusability.” While he pointed out that there have been other attempts to get reusability in launch vehicles, he pointed out some of the main challenges on why there hasn’t been a clear success yet.
“There was too much maintenance, inspection and validation that had to be done. You need to get to a place that is ultimately more like commercial airliners,” he said. Bezos believes that operational reusability is the key to lowering the cost of launch, and that the costs of propellant are “vanishingly small” in comparison.
The New Glenn orbital vehicle’s biggest draw — reusability via vertical landing — is a culmination of the lessons the company learned when designing its previous rockets.
“If you want to recover a big orbital booster there are a few options. You can put wings on it like the space shuttle, you can use parachutes, and you can do vertical landing,” Bezos said. He’s partial to vertical landing in particular because of its scalability. “It’s the inverted pendulum problem,” he said, which means that landing only becomes easier as the rockets become larger.
Besides discussing the New Glenn rocket, a new BE-4 engine, and hinting at his goals for future space travel, Bezos, also used his keynote to explain how, and why, he progressed from running arguably the most successful retail business in the world, Amazon, to disrupting the launch and satellite industry with Blue Origin.
“You don’t choose your passions, our passions choose you,” he said. “I fell in love with space and rockets when I was a 5-year-old boy watching Neil Armstrong step on the surface of the moon. I’ve been passionate about it ever since.” Bezos described the success of Amazon as a “lottery winning” — and says that he’s now investing those winnings into Blue Origin.
Bezos’ long-term vision, he said, is millions of people living and working in space. “We need a space-faring civilization for a number of reasons,” he said, but noted that while he’s excited for the future, he isn’t interested in rushing things. “Our motto is ‘Gradatim Ferociter’ — or ‘step by step, ferociously,’” he said. “I like to do these things very incrementally. There’s a military phrase I especially love that says ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast.’ I have seen that in every endeavor I have ever been in, that’s the kind of thing that really allows you to make progress.” VS