That Escalated Quickly

Blue Origin finally lifted the curtains late yesterday:

This has taken a lot of industry observers by surprise as most of the reliable space news sites haven’t even picked up on it yet. They’ve been very secretive and now we can see why: when not busy running the worldwide juggernaut that is Amazon, Jeff Bezos has been building his own personal space program. What’s amazing to me is just how close to the vest he’s been able to play this: they’d announced test flights would start this year, but danged if they didn’t go and start with an all-up test of the full vehicle all the way to space.

The difference between their approach and that of the better-known Virgin Galactic is clear, and it goes beyond vehicle design. Bezos waited until he was satisfied they were ready to put on a real show with close-to-operational hardware instead of stringing people along and taking their money during the unpredictable development process. This is in stark contrast to Virgin, who Doug Messier reports is still flagellating over their final choice for an engine.

This is also a useful lesson in how the very wealthy go about creating entire industries that no one could have anticipated. After revolutionizing commerce and publishing with Amazon, Bezos used that wealth to pursue his real passion and is applying similar foresight to opening up space for the rest of us. History will regard men like him and Elon Musk in the same way we look back at Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Ford.

If you want more, Blue Origin’s formerly bare-bones website is now updated with lots of cool videos and other imagery, so head over there to service your nerdboner. Because cool as it is, there’s no getting around that it looks like a flying…

Out of the Blue

BE-3 test fire. Credit: Blue Origin

Infamously close-mouthed Blue Origin (the Jeff Bezos company that’s not named Amazon) announced a successful full-mission-profile test of their BE3 rocket engine:

Blue Origin, the commercial space company bankrolled by founder Jeff Bezos, plans to begin unmanned orbital flight tests of its biconic-shape human capsule in 2018. Ultimately, the company will use an orbital launch vehicle powered at least in part by a clean-sheet cryogenic engine it now has demonstrated can support suborbital human spaceflight.

But wait! There’s more:

The characteristically secretive Kent, Wash.-based startup unveiled new details about the BE-3 Dec. 3 in a rare and unusually informative question-and-answer session with Rob Meyerson, president and program manager…

In the test, the engine ran for 145 sec. at full throttle, then shut down for 4.5 min. to simulate the coasting phase that will take New Shepard out of the atmosphere. This was followed by a restart and throttle-down to the 25,000-lb.-thrust level it will need to bring the reusable booster back to Earth for a tail-down landing while the capsule parachutes home…

Work building up to the full-cycle BE-3 test in November was conducted over nine months and included 160 starts and 9,100 sec. of engine operation. “That equates to a test every two days, and sometimes actually three or four tests per day,” says Meyerson.

So yeah, they’ve been kinda busy. Can’t say I blame them for keeping a tight lid on things because it certainly makes announcements like this a little more attention-grabbing.

Blue Origin family portrait. Keep the dildo jokes to yourselves, pervs.

NewSpace is a great example of the good that comes from free markets: men who’ve already made substantial fortunes through internet innovations then plow those profits into the things they’re most passionate about. In turn, they will create entire new industries and expand our economy into the solar system. This is a multi-decade process with an entirely unknown end state, but I believe it’s key to preserving our Republic (not to mention a national intervention to rehab our crack-addled Uncle Sam).

Not because space exploration is inspiring, adventurous, unique, or dangerous (though it is all of those). It’s because the only thing humans can create from nothing is wealth. The ugly truth is we need the money, because that $17,000,000,000,000+ debt is an enormous overhang on our economy. And it isn’t going away anytime soon.

You know who got rich off of the gold rush? Certainly not the prospectors who gave up everything to pan for precious metals in the mountain West. Nope, it was all of the store owners and hoteliers and railroad men who showed up to provide all the stuff they needed. Infrastructure follows development, not the other way around.

Free people making their way in a previously untapped frontier will lead to all sorts of unexpected opportunities. Just watch and learn from these baby steps.

DIY Space Program

When deciding to become a novelist while keeping the day job – sadly necessary if you also choose to live in a house and eat food – you have to be willing to give up most of your hobbies, or at least the most time-consuming ones. In my case, that was modeling and high-power rocketry (HPR, for the uninitiated).

HPR is the grown-up version of the ubiquitous Estes model rockets some of you might have toyed with as kids. Typically the rockets are big enough, and engines powerful enough, to require FAA waivers which close the airspace to conflicting traffic. You also have to go through a certification process with one of the national hobby organizations.

“Red Death”, headed for 6,000′ AGL and Mach .90, never to be seen again.

If you’ve been hanging out at this blog for a while, you know I’ve been a rocket and space geek since I was a little kid watching Apollo missions on the old black-and-white TV. When I discovered high-power about ten years ago, it hooked me completely. Better Half was less excited but she at least tolerated it. And to be fair, it’s not cheap: the cheapest motors are around twenty bucks each, and that’s if you’re using a reloadable system which means you’ve already forked over a hundred for motor casings. Throw in medium- to high-tech materials (fiberglass, composites, etc) and electronics (those parachutes don’t deploy themselves at 10,000′) and stuff gets spendy in a hurry. I built a couple of fiberglass rockets and one partially with composites, and that’s about as techy as it got. Perhaps if I’d invested in an altimeter-controlled recovery system, I’d still have Red Death instead of it being carted off by winds aloft somewhere into the next county.

This project, on the other hand, looks to be a bit more complicated.

It’s essentially an open-source Mercury/Redstone vehicle, taking advantage of modern building materials and 50-odd years of acquired knowledge. If you’re looking for a challenging build, this might be it.


T-Minus Eight Years And Counting

Spaceship One. Credit: Scaled Composites

It’s been eight long years since SpaceShipOne became the first privately-built spacecraft to actually fly into space, thus earning the title of…spacecraft.

OK, so that’s redundant. My kids have been making me watch too much Austin Powers (allow myself to introduce…myself).

Not being content with making history just once, Rutan and Co. went on to make two more flights with ballast equivalent to two passengers, thus earning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.

Naturally I was geeked out over the whole thing when it happened. It also gave me the impetus to start writing Perigee, which had already been flitting about inside my cranial region for some time. I figured now that someone had actually done it, and another really rich guy was bankrolling a whole new airline on the concept, that my own wild ideas wouldn’t feel so…science-fictioney.

Yeah, that’s a word. Trust me, I’m a writer. Continue reading “T-Minus Eight Years And Counting”