Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have pretty much conquered the world with Tesla and Amazon respectively, but they’ve got their sights set much higher. Musk heads up SpaceX, while Bezos has the lesser known Blue Origin and they are both building rockets that could change the future of mankind.
Space is a big place and the two companies are heading in very different directions when they hit the skies. But there are also a number of similarities and there’s definitely a competitive edge between these self-made billionaires that simply cannot be constrained by the simple laws of gravity.
It wasn’t so long ago that SpaceX was claiming a raft of new records with the Falcon Heavy. Now Blue Origin has come out with a series of designs for the New Glenn that will be here by the end of the decade.
Unless SpaceX has something else up its sleeve, Blue Origin will take the lead when Blue Origin New Glenn takes to the skies. It isn’t here yet, but then neither is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and so that’s the comparison we’re going to go for.
That’s because the Blue Origin New Shepherd is a firecracker compared to the lower level Falcon 9 and it just wouldn’t be a fair comparison. So just bear in mind that we’re dealing with specs and prototypes right now, rather than proper rockets leaving the ground. Falcon Heavy will be here first, but it hasn’t lifted off yet.
So how do the company’s rockets stack up when we put them head-to-head? Let’s find out.
First, why are they even doing it?
Musk has laid bare his plans to take the human race to Mars and eventually lower the price of a ticket to his own private Elysium to just $100,000. Is it insane? It might be, but then so were electric cars when Musk started Tesla.
We’ve given up on doubting the man, even though his ambition to turn us into a two-planet species makes everything else look like small beer. His reason is simple, one planet or the other could be wiped out at some point and having a foot on each world gives our species the best possible chance of a future.
There’s a long way to go between now and then, though, and the Falcon Heavy is just the first step.
Jeff Bezos is the world’s fifth richest man and he’s just as passionate about the environment as Elon Musk, in his own way. He wants to move heavy industry off this planet and effectively turn the world into a garden that can repair the wounds inflicted by mass manufacturing, mining and more.
He too envisages millions moving to space to live and work in industrial zones that are far removed from our world’s atmosphere. It would clean up the Earth in a stroke and give our planet the chance to breathe free and reverse some of the incredible damage we’ve inflicted over hundreds of years.
Along the way he’ll use New Shepherd to take tourists into sub-orbital space, more than 60 miles up, and that could even happen this year. But the next rocket will be called Armstrong and that’s clearly aimed at the moon.
These are wildly different goals, but they both require an affordable rocket. So there are a surprising number of commonalities with SpaceX and Blue Origin’s approach to space exploration.
What do Falcon Heavy and New Glenn have in common?
Both Bezos and Musk agreed that the price of space exploration simply wasn’t viable and Bezos likened the process of using a $200 million rocket and failing to salvage it to flying a jumbo jet across the Atlantic and throwing it in the bin at journey’s end. It just couldn’t happen anymore.
So two of the most disruptive companies in recent times have come up with their own systems to salvage the main rocket after every mission and slash the price of space exploration.
Blue Origin has achieved a propulsive soft landing on the ground and has launched the same rocket four times into sub-orbital space.
SpaceX has landed twice as many times, on land and sea, so the recovery technique is in place and both companies can now offer missions into space at previously unheard-of prices. That’s good for the scientific community, industry and even space tourists.
Things get complex right from the off, but this is rocket science right? The issue is that the Blue Origin New Glenn comes in two sizes and we’re going to focus on the smaller of the two and its two rocket stages. That’s because even the smaller Blue Origin rocket towers over the Falcon 9 Heavy as it stands right now.
Bezos’s New Glenn measures 23 feet in diameter and 270 feet high with a single-stage on top and 313 feet if it has two. The range of the mission will dictate which version takes off, with the shorter rocket being suitable for humans or potentially satellites and one stage being good enough for sub-orbital flight. The larger rocket is designed to take payloads and people into orbit and beyond.
SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is just 229 feet, so it’s much shorter, but it has two additional ‘strap-on’ boosters that differentiate it from the simpler Falcon 9. So in reality it really isn’t much smaller. It is simply packaged in a different way.
It is 39.9 feet wide and weighs in at a ludicrous 3,125,735lb. We haven’t got the final weight on Blue Origin’s rocket yet, but we can only assume it will be in that ballpark.
Falcon Heavy vs New Glenn: Price
The actual cost of the rocket really isn’t the issue, although a Falcon 9 costs about $300 million and we can safely assume that a bigger rocket will cost more. It’s the cost per launch that will define their commercial viability, though, assuming both rockets perform as expected.
Musk has said that Falcon Heavy will cost $90 million per launch to Lower Earth Orbit and $130 million to go further. That is basically the cost of fuel, some spare parts and presumably enough people to make it happen.
New Glenn is just too far away for the company to start giving us these numbers, but if it comes down to fuel costs then it could well end up cheaper than Falcon Heavy. That’s due to the Root Cube Law, which means that the additional girth of the Blue Origin’s single, traditional-shaped rocket will give it added strength and it could have thinner walls, lowering the weight and the fuel consumption.
How much power do these monsters have?
Elon Musk’s rocket might be smaller, but it will punch above its weight. Blue Origin is working on its own BE-4 engines and seven of them will provide a more than respectable 3.85 million pounds of thrust.
Each engine is good for 550,000lb of thrust, or 2,400 kilonewtons, and it’s the first rocket engine to combine liquid methane and liquid oxygen. That creates a system called autogenous pressurization, which eliminates the need for a separate pressurization system.
The engine that should survive 25 launches and landing cycles, has attracted a lot of attention and even customers. Boeing wants to use the powerplant for its reusable space plane, code-named DAPA XS-1, and United Launch Alliance signed a deal with Blue Origin to design the Atlas V around the engine.
So there’s no doubt that the Blue Origin engine has potential, but it’s a massive 2 million pounds of thrust down on the kerosene-powered Falcon Heavy.
That has nine Merlin engines inside each of three first stage cores. So, yes, that is 27 engines in total providing that level of thrust. The upper stage consists of a single 9-engine core that provides more than enough thrust once the rocket has broken free of the Earth’s atmospheric pull.
The Falcon 9 has topped 7000mph in expendable configuration and, despite its extra weight, Falcon Heavy has substantially more thrust. We haven’t got the numbers yet, but we can only assume it will be faster.
Blue Origin’s New Glenn is down on thrust and that should be more important than its streamlined shape. Space is a vacuum, so wind resistance shouldn’t come into play and the lack of thrust should mean it comes up short in this particular fight.
Falcon Heavy vs New Glenn: Payload size
The Falcon Heavy’s additional thrusters mean it can take loads of up to 54.4 tons to Lower Earth Orbit, compared to the Falcon 9’s 22.8 tons. It’s a massive jump, but it’s still just an evolutionary step in Elon Musk’s masterplan to transport the human race to Mars.
As the rocket goes further, the payload size decreases dramatically and it can only lug 13,600kg to Mars. That might sound like a lot, but if we’re planning on moving thousands of people there then it is going to take a lot of trips to get that show on the road. It’s like moving house with a moped, rather than a van, and it’s a real logistical issue.
Bezos hasn’t released the payload details for New Glenn, but there are serious rumors doing the rounds that it will win this battle by a long way. Figures of 70 tons and even 100 tons have been bandied around, but there is simply no confirmation right now.
How far can they go?
The range of both machines is absolutely staggering. SpaceX says it can take a 3-ton payload to Pluto and that is 4.67 billion miles away. Once in the vacuum of deep space, it really doesn’t take much thrust to keep the rocket moving, so the range gets a little silly. It’s worth noting, though, that it would be a one-way trip. There’s no way SpaceX could get the rocket back.
New Glenn will almost certainly have a comparable range, but we don’t have the numbers just yet. So we can only speculate and call it a draw.
Who will get to Mars first?
Some portions of the press got excited by Blue Origin’s big reveal and even suggested that Bezos could beat Musk to Mars. But there’s just no way. SpaceX is planning an unmanned mission to Mars as early as next year and although the recent explosion of the lighter Falcon 9 has put a dent in its progress, that mission should still take place.
By the end of the decade, Musk surely has to make progress on his Mars colonization plan and actually start moving equipment and people to the Red Planet. By the time New Glenn hits the launchpad, then, Falcon Heavy should already have reached Mars several times.
Failure is an option
The new rockets haven’t taken to the skies yet, but we have to look at their record. Blue Origin had just one “rapid unplanned disassembly”, which was a cute term for an explosion, in 2011.
SpaceX looks positively reckless in comparison, with four big and expensive failures, but Musk has never shied away from growing pains and his company has arguably pushed the envelope far harder.
That didn’t help his cause when Mark Zuckerberg’s satellite went up in flames along with Musk’s Falcon 9 last year, though, and customers might simply want a safer pair of hands. There really aren’t any options right now, but that is about to change.
Space travel is dangerous, but Blue Origin has a much better track record when it comes to taking off and touching down without an incident. With the money involved and lives at stake, that matters.
It feels kind of childish to pick a winner here. These are both exceptional machines in their own right and we should perhaps, instead, take a moment to celebrate what we’re looking at here. The space program was virtually dead and two extraordinary individuals have taken it upon themselves to take the human race to new heights, depths and planets.
These two eccentric billionaires might be on a massive ego trip, but they will drag the rest of us along with them as they try and outdo each other with cutting-edge technology. They both have a noble cause in there somewhere and this is going to be for the greater good.
The next generation rockets will take tourists, equipment and industry into space and they will change the face of the universe we live in. Let’s just take a moment to give thanks for that and look forward to going onward and upwards into the night sky.