Billionaire space club pits Musk vs. Bezos et al.

Image: Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin's New Shepard craft
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (in hat and sunglasses) pops open a bottle of champagne after Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket landing in November. (Credit: Blue Origin)

When Jeff Bezos welcomed SpaceX to the rocket landing “club” last week, it set off a round of twittering over whether Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and fellow billionaire Elon Musk’s SpaceX were really in the same league. What kind of club was Bezos talking about?

The club that Bezos had in mind was precisely defined: It consists of ventures that can launch a rocket booster from the ground into space, and then bring that booster back intact for a vertical landing.

Blue Origin was the first to become a member, during a November test flight of its suborbital New Shepard spaceship in Texas. SpaceX followed in December, with the successful landing of its Falcon 9’s first-stage booster after the launch of 11 Orbcomm telecommunication satellites.

Lots of folks have pointed out how much more difficult it is to bring back a booster after an orbital launch, as opposed to New Shepard’s up-and-down suborbital trip. The Falcon 9 stage is more than 10 times as powerful and rose twice as high as New Shepard. The implications are greater, as well: Musk says total rocket reusability could lower the cost of delivering satellites and other payloads to orbit by a factor of 100, and eventually open the way for building a city on Mars.

Based on Bezos’ narrow definition of the club, Blue Origin may have been the first member, but this month SpaceX took the lead.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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