The New Shepard rocket that Blue Origin has been launching and landing is a fairly modest thing, 65 feet high, capable of getting just past the edge of space, some 60 miles up. But on Monday, Jeff Bezos' space company announced the design of its new, orbital rocket, a towering, more powerful behemoth designed to take people and commercial satellites to orbit.
In a newsletter, Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, said the New Glenn rocket would come in two variants--a two stage and a three stage--that would be ready to fly by the end of the decade. Powered by seven BE-4 engines, they would have 3.85 million pounds of thrust at sea level. The rocket would be nearly as tall as the mighty, Apollo-era Saturn V that ferried the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
"Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step," Bezos wrote.
The announcement comes at a critical time for the commercial space industry, which aims to reduce the cost of spaceflight and open it up to the masses. Last week, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, performed the first test flight of its new spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, as it prepares to take paying customers into space. And Blue Origin, which also promises to move into the space tourism market, plans to fly a critical test flight of New Shepard, its suborbital rocket, next month.
Two weeks ago, the industry was jolted when SpaceX, the leader in the so-called New Space movement, suffered a catastrophic failure, when its Falcon 9 rocket ignited while on a Cape Canaveral launch pad and blew up in a spectacular fireball. The company is grounded while investigators try to determine the cause of the explosion, and that could lead to a delay of a launch of its new massive rocket, the Falcon Heavy.
Like the reusable New Shepard, the New Glenn's first stage would also be capable of boosting its payload into space, then flying back to the Earth for a soft landing. Bezos has said that being able to reuse rockets, instead of discarding them after each use as has traditionally been the case, is a key step toward lowering the cost of space travel. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, has already landed several orbital-class first stages on land or on ships at sea.
In the statement, Bezos wrote that the company's mascot is a tortoise, a symbol from the fable the Tortoise and the Hare. Its motto is "Gradatim Ferociter" – Latin for "step by step, ferociously," he wrote. "We believe 'slow is smooth and smooth is fast.' In the long run, deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps," he wrote.
Bezos said the company plans to launch the New Glenn rocket from Cape Canaveral's Launch Complex 36, which it is refurbishing.
The naming for Blue Origin's rockets is a nod for the 60s-era Space Age, a time that Bezos has said has had a profound influence on him. New Shepard was named for Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space in 1961. A year later, NASA astronaut John Glenn pushed the boundary even further when he became the first American in orbit, circling the globe three times.
Then in 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, which Bezos said would inspire his next venture.
While getting to orbit is a key step, he said it won't be the company's last: "Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future."