Commercial Space Companies Scramble for ISS Missions

My family is a frequent visitor to The Museum of Flight in Seattle. Our favorite part about the museum is its fantastic collection of spacecraft—from a Viking Lander Flight Capsule to an Apollo Command Module. In May, a new addition arrived, the Charon—a vertical take-off, vertical-landing jet-powered vehicle—from private company Blue Origin.

Blue Origin is a highly secretive startup funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and the Charon was its first journey into reusable rockets that takeoff and land vertically.

Based out of Kent, WA, the company is a player in the race to develop a manned vehicle capable of flying astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

After the retirement last year of the space shuttle, NASA turned to commercial space companies to develop private spacecraft which can carry cargo and astronauts to the ISS. Blue Origin joined the race alongside SpaceX, Orbital Science Corp., Boeing, and Sierra Nevada Corp, bagging $22 million from NASA.

NASA  is expected to choose only one manned vehicle design from the vying companies—and possibly a runner-up who’ll partner with the winner—in July, although Blue Origin has not confirmed it’s submitted a bid.

Last month, SpaceX made international headlines when it successfully birthed its Dragon capsule with the ISS, but Blue Origin continues to push forward in what it calls a “patient” way to provide NASA with an affordable and reliable spacecraft.

The company’s conducted 180-plus tests on its seven-seat orbital Space Vehicle at Lockheed Martin’s wind tunnel facility in Dallas.

The “biconic” design of the vehicle gives aerodynamic lift without the use of wings. Orienting the vehicle vertically for launch and horizontally for reentry affords the “launch simplicity of a capsule coupled with the reentry advantages of a lifting body,” according to Blue Origin.

The unique design gives astronauts a larger landing area and cuts down on G-forces during reentry, as well as allowing for a safe landing in the United States in the event of an emergency return from the ISS.

“The biconic shape improves on traditional designs, showing continued spaceflight innovation,” said Rob Meyerson, president and program manager of Blue Origin.

The company’s Space Vehicle, when coupled with its reusable rocket, will be a powerful combination. Conventional rockets are usually discarded at great cost, but a reusable first-stage booster rocket— which can take off vertically and then separate at the conventional suborbital staging point—can descend back to earth and perform a powered vertical landing. The intact rocket can then be refueled and launched again, reducing cost and improving reliability.

Regardless of the outcome of NASA’s decision in July, Blue Origin is here to stay. Its other project, the suborbital New Shepard system, is promised to provide researchers the opportunity to take readings of space, sky and Earth – and further down the line space tourism might be an option.

“If spaceflight were ubiquitous there would be tons of uses for it…tons of science being done,” Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy for Blue Origin, told recently.

“Developing the capability to be responsive, cost-effective and to fit into business cycles of research firms is essential. As long as we are at least focused on that…we’ve got a good shot at doing it. I think those markets are real. The question is, are they enough to sustain a business on their own…or are they going to be a side activity for human spaceflight, tourism, adventure experiences?” said Alexander.

Photo courtesy of Blue Origin

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