Watch Out, SpaceX. The Competition is Gaining

A new space race is on as a major player has just joined the very lucrative space hardware launch market which for the time being continues to be dominated by SpaceX.

rockets

Blue Origin, the private aerospace company owned by Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) founder and CEO Jeff Bezos has for the first time, after six long years of development successfully tested its fourth generation rocket engine. The achievement marks a breakthrough for the company as it works towards developing a massive New Glenn rocket, and sell the engine to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) – the joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing and a main contractor for the US Military – for its Vulcan rocket, a heavy-payload launch vehicle.

Dubbed as BE-4, the enormous liquid rocket engine Bezos unveiled earlier this year, and one that could eventually shuttle humans to space, boast 550,000 pounds force of thrust – producing 5x more power than Blue Origin’s BE-3 engines. By way of comparison, the Merlin engine which launches SpaceX’s rockets, emits ‘only’ 190,000 pounds force of thrust at liftoff.

Separately here, there has been talk about the Merlin engine possibly powering SpaceX’s BFR, an eight stories tall re-usable 42-engine super heavy lift vehicle that billionaire SpaceX/Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) founder Elon Musk says could revolutionize Earth-bound air and space travel. That said, Raptor, designed to help spacecraft travel to Mars and beyond, has also been touted as the rocket engine for the BFR. But getting back to Amazon’s BE-4 engine-now SpaceX’s fiercest competitor, the Seattle-based e-commerce giant did not provide any technical data about the test, including duration or thrust level.

However, seeing the BE-4 in action during its first “hotfire” test, it’s apparent things went fine after the engine was fired at half of its power for about three seconds.

After the demonstration, ULA issued a statement congratulating Blue Origin-calling the successful test firing of the company’s game-changing engine rocket “a tremendous accomplishment.”

The test, conducted last Wednesday, has fueled hopes that the BE-4 will be able to complete Blue Origin’s first space tourism trip by April 2019. That launch date however, would put Bezos’ space venture slightly behind SpaceX, which plans to send two passengers on a trip around the moon by the end of 2018.

It’s worth noting that unlike SpaceX, Amazon’s Blue Origin is not draining taxpayer’s money since the project is largely funded by Bezos and with some support from ULA, a significant detail that makes this development even more important.

The test is also important when considering that besides marking the firing of a new American-made engine, which will have a vast capacity in terms of carrying much more mass farther into space, it ends “American dependence on the Russian-made RD-180 engine” while at the same time, sending a clear message that there is a new player in the lucrative space hardware launch market “preparing to compete both for national security and commercial launches.”

Once operational, New Glenn with its 550,000 pounds of thrust and seven engines ready to be used for a first-stage total liftoff thrust of nearly 4 million pounds, will be used for commercial satellite launches, but Bezos is also aiming Pentagon contracts and NASA missions.

Saying Bezos’ space outfit will tighten up the competition with Musk’s SpaceX, would be at this point an understatement.

At last check, Amazon stock was trading 2 points higher to $968 and change, while TSLA was up $1.80 to $338.87.

6 Comments on Watch Out, SpaceX. The Competition is Gaining

  1. SpaceX is draining tax payer’s money? ULA and SpaceX were both awarded a contract to perform the same thing, take astronauts to the ISS. SpaceX was given 2.6 billion. ULA was awarded around $5 BILLION to do the exact same thing. SpaceX has launched national security sats for around the $100 million price point, meanwhile ULA is happy to charge the US tax payer 4 TIMES that price, $400 MILLION. It seems this simple math alludes you. If anything, SpaceX has SAVED the tax payer millions and millions every time they when a contract over ULA.

  2. You should not compare BE-4 with a Merlin: keralox Vs Metalox engines.
    Think about a Metalox Space X raptor engine has 430,000 lbf that seems lower if you don’t consider the Thrust/Weight ratio of 198 (!) Raptor. Is a full flow staged combustion cycle engine with full launch fire test (total of 1200 seconds an 100 seconds continuous).
    In my opinion BE-4 is a still immature big ’60 rocket design, born with lower specifications by design.Silv

  3. Sir,
    The Wall Street Pit’s enthusiasm for new engine technology is commendable. The discussion of BE-4 and Raptor engine development can be enhanced, however, by providing more granular data to corroborate the story.

    Since January of last year, the US Air Force has invested approximately $136 million in the development of SpaceX’s Raptor engine. Although it has not supplied funding directly to Blue Origin, the US Air Force has provided over $200 million to ULA since February of last year to, in turn, support the development and integration (into Vulcan) of the BE-4. By the numbers, the US taxpayer is investing more heavily in the BE-4 than in the Raptor. The BE-4 tax money is simply coming in through the back door.

    Also of note, the BE-4 is architected as a conventional staged combustion engine. The Raptor engine is a full-flow staged combustion engine which, although much tougher to build, should ultimately lead to greater reliability than can be attained using simple staged combustion.

    The progress we have seen on the BE-4 and Raptor is tremendously positive for the future of spaceflight and both engines have a huge contribution to make. But it is worth noting that the Raptor is a generation ahead of the BE-4 and is costing the public less.

  4. Not to take anything away from Blue Origin but to characterize them as a competitor of SpaceX is a huge stretch. BO has yet to place anything into orbit whereas SX did so in 2008. While BO has demonstrated the ability to land a rocket (straight up and down), they have yet to do so while placing a second stage into orbital position, SX did that 16 times in 2017.

    Test firing the BE4 for a few seconds at half throttle is admirable but hardly reason to jump to your conclusions. SX has 1200 seconds of full fire test of their new Raptor engine by comparison. Yes the BE4 is larger than the Raptor, but that’s just a difference in philosophy: fewer larger engines verses more smaller engines. Both approaches seem to work well. Until Blue Origin actually places something significant into orbit (“show me the beef”) they’re all vaporware at this point.

    For me, it’s even money that SpaceX launches and lands the second stage of its BFR before Blue Origin gets its first payload to orbit.

  5. “It’s worth noting that unlike SpaceX, Amazon’s Blue Origin is not draining taxpayer’s money since the project is largely funded by Bezos and with some support from ULA, a significant detail that makes this development even more important.”

    It’s worth noting that most of the money SpaceX has gotten from the government has been through pay for service contracts for launches. If the satellite or capsule didn’t fly or didn’t fully complete its mission, SpaceX got nothing. For the rest, the lion’s share of direct development money SpaceX is getting for the commercial crew program. And the only reason Blue Origin isn’t also getting money for development of their capsule design is because they weren’t picked. In other words, instead of being a badge of pride, it’s an acknowledgment that Blue’s capsule didn’t match up to Dragon or CST-100 at the time. And as noted by several folks here, Blue Origin is still years off from first orbital flight and just as prone to “Elon time” (Bezos time?) as SpaceX. I really hope they succeed because by pursuing reusability and aiming directly and Beyond Earth Orbit ops they’re already putting us on a better path than the “we’ll build it, but only if you pay us first” approach of the last several decades. But I’ll save “gaining” or glowing comparisons for after first flight.

    I’m not anti-Blue Origin or some sort of blind SpaceX worshiper. But this article

  6. Blue and SpaceX are both doing admirable work; fir the first time in decades the US is actually doing new rocket research and design. Blue has successfully cracked a problem that only the Soviets had previously solved — how to build an Oxidizer Rich Staged Combustion engine. That puts them far ahead of Rocketdyne — and ULA parent corporations Boeing and Lockheed Martin who have actually had blueprints and models from the original designers but still couldn’t figure it out. But Blue is a generation behind SpaceX; the Raptor is a Full Flow (ei, both Oxidizer Rich and Fuel Rich) Staged Combustion design.

    As to cost savings, I was surprised the author targeted SpaceX. That is not just outrageously wrong, but it leaves a genuine bloated pork-barrel boondoggle untouched — the SLS and Orion programs have already cost the US taxpayer in excess of US $20B (Twenty Thousand Million dollars). ‘Development’ of this useless monstrosity is likely to consume that much money again, take another decade, and eventually deliver a vehicle which we might launch for the modest sum of US $5B (yes Virginia, that is Five Thousand Million dollars) per launch.

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