Amazon founder Jeffrey P. Bezos popped up in Washington on Wednesday to announce his latest business venture: His low-profile space company, Blue Origin, will supply engines for the rockets that launch America’s military and national security satellites.
The announcement, at the National Press Club, featured Bezos, who last year bought The Washington Post, and Tory Bruno, the chief executive of United Launch Alliance, which has a virtual monopoly on the nation’s most sensitive rocket launches.
Also on hand: A two-foot-tall model of a rocket engine, the BE-4. The full-size version is about 12 feet tall, Bezos said.
“I think it’s pretty clear that it’s time for a 21st-century engine booster system,” Bezos said.
This is a historic partnership between “Old Space” and “New Space.” United Launch Alliance (ULA) is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Blue Origin is a start-up fueled by Bezos money. Now ULA will invest in the development of the BE-4 engine.
Neither executive would discuss a dollar figure, although it’s probably somewhat less than $1 billion. Bruno said a typical liquid-fueled rocket engine takes seven years and $1 billion to develop, but Blue Origin is already several years along on the BE-4. Bruno said the engine could be ready within four years to serve as the main engine on the company’s Atlas V rockets.
The agreement instantly propels the publicity-shy Blue Origin into the mainstream of the aerospace industry. The company rarely issues a news release and has long preferred to let other New Space companies, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX, garner headlines. That circumspection — the way Blue Origin developed its new engine “without hype, without fanfare” — is one reason ULA was attracted to Blue Origin, Bruno said.
The deal also solves a major problem for ULA. The company’s Atlas V rocket uses as its main engine the Russian-made RD-180, a powerful booster developed in the Soviet era and now the workhorse of America’s fleet of big rockets. The disintegration of relations between the United States and Russia in recent months has called attention to ULA’s reliance on the Russian hardware.
At one point this summer, a top Russian official suggested that the supply of engines would be cut off. That threat appears to have been mere bluster, and ULA recently obtained two RD-180s, with more on the way. But Congress and the military are eager to see ULA develop alternatives to the RD-180.
“I think the U.S. needs to have an American-made booster engine. And, finally, I think, for humanity, we need access to space,” Bezos said in an interview after the news conference. “This will move all of those things forward. And I feel great about it.”
Asked about his overarching goal, he said, “What we want to have happen is millions of people living and working in space.”
The partnership would not preclude ULA’s using other rocket engines. But Bezos said, “Our goal is to make the engine so operable, so low-cost and so reliable, that ULA would be crazy to use anything else.”
The deal delicately inserts Blue Origin into NASA’s plans to launch American astronauts once again from American soil. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, NASA astronauts have had to ride on Russian rockets at a cost of $71 million a seat. On Tuesday, NASA announced that it had awarded contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, totaling $6.8 billion, to carry astronauts to the International Space Station as early as 2017 under the new “commercial crew” program.
Boeing’s space capsule will launch on the Atlas V. That means that, at some point, American astronauts could be blasted into space using rockets equipped with Blue Origin engines.
Tuesday’s announcement that SpaceX would be one of the two companies delivering astronauts to orbit represented a triumphal moment for the New Space movement led by Musk, who in barely a decade has turned SpaceX into a major player in aerospace.
But Musk had to share the spotlight Tuesday with Bezos after the Wall Street Journal reported on the surprising Blue Origin-ULA deal and the companies revealed that Bezos would join Bruno on Wednesday at the National Press Club news conference.
Bezos made his fortune turning Amazon.com from a start-up bookseller into an all-purpose retailer and Internet hosting service. But he has been fascinated by space travel since childhood and has reportedly poured half a billion dollars into Blue Origin, which is located outside Seattle in Kent, Wash.
Until now, Blue Origin had touted its plans to create suborbital and eventually orbital spaceships that could carry people into space, but the company had little to show for its efforts. At a conference last year in New Mexico, Blue Origin executive Bretton Alexander showed a video of an engine test — the BE-3, a precursor to the engine ULA is investing in — and said the company’s philosophy is “low cost, reusability and safety.” He said Blue Origin’s goal is “more people flying in space to do more things.”
That seemed years away, though. The Blue Origin suborbital spacecraft, New Shepard, has never been launched into space. Bezos said Wednesday that crewed flights of that vehicle could take place toward the end of this decade.
The BE-4 engine could be used for orbital spacecraft, Bezos said. The ULA deal obviously gives Blue Origin a boost when discussing those kinds of ambitious plans, which previously had incited derision from Musk. Last year, during a dispute between Blue Origin and SpaceX over access to a space shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center, Musk took a shot at Blue Origin’s achievements so far.
“If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs,” Musk wrote in an e-mail published at SpaceNews.com. “Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
In an interview later in the fall with The Washington Post, Musk said of Bezos: “He doesn’t want people to think he’s getting distracted from Amazon. Every time I talk to Jeff, I tell him to spend more time on Blue Origin. . . . Advancing spaceflight is more important.”
When a reporter asked Bezos on Wednesday how he manages his time, given his disparate interests, he said: “Amazon is my day job. I love Amazon.”
He went on: “I’m very, very lucky. I get to live and work in the future. And so that is fantastic.” He said he doesn’t have any hobbies such as golf. But he does have the space bug.
“You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you,” Bezos said. “For me, space is something that I have been in love with since I was 5 years old. I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the surface of the moon, and I guess it imprinted me.”