COLORADO SPRINGS — Lowering the cost of orbiting payloads is the missing infrastructure link blocking an explosion in commercial space applications comparable to the internet boom that started in the 1990s, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told the annual Space Symposium here in a rare public presentation on his goals for Blue Origin.
Amazon was built on the background of the telephone-based internet and surface transportation networks, he told a full house at the 32nd gathering of civil and military space professionals organized by the Space Foundation. Reusable launch vehicles can play the same role for off-planet applications, opening the door to a plethora of new businesses just as voice-communications connections did for the internet industry in the days of dial-up modems.
“That happened very fast,” he said April 12. “If you think about e-commerce, all of the heavy lifting was already done. We had all these big pieces of infrastructure. For Amazon to be an e-commerce company in 1995, we didn’t have to roll out a national transportation network. The Postal Service was already there,was already there. That would have been billions of dollars in capex and taken many decades.”
Once reusable launchers lower the price of admission to space, a similar commercial upheaval is possible in low Earth orbit (LEO), he said, noting that the worldwide launch rate is lower today than it was earlier in the Space Age.
“We need much lower cost to access to space; it’s just too expensive,” he said. “Today only the most important applications can make their way to space because of the cost to get there. And so we’re in a certain equilibrium, and that equilibrium isn’t taking us far enough fast enough.”
Fresh off the third successful reflight of a Blue Origin New Shepard suborbital space-tourism launcher (Aerospace DAILY, April 2 - subscribers only), Bezos said the company is gaining experience flying and reusing its BE-3 cryogenic engine with the suborbital flights. Once it begins flying paying customers on 11-12-minute jaunts to the edge of space in 2018, that growing experience will help the development of a larger orbital launch vehicle that will use the BE-3 for its upper stage, he said.
Meanwhile, the reusable BE-4 engine in development for main-stage power will be designed to lower the as-yet-unnamed new launcher’s first stage to a tail-down landing like the New Shepard. That feat has been achieved twice on an orbital launcher bywith its seven-engine Falcon 9, most recently April 8 on a barge at sea off the coast of Florida. Bezos said he believes “the more the merrier” in developing reusability for space launch.
“Oftentimes it’s very natural to think of business competition like a sporting event,” he said. “In a sporting event there actually is a winner and a loser. In business it’s usually a little different than that. Great industries are usually built by not just one or two or three companies, but usually by dozens of companies. There can be many winners; even hundreds of thousands of companies in a truly great industry. I think that’s what we’re headed toward here.”