SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic three visions, one goal: space

While a SpaceX Falcon 9 will take to the air on Wednesday with a NASA mission on board, a look back at the struggle and history of New Space’s three best-known companies.

The space conquest is the story of a great rivalry between the United States and the USSR. As the Soviet bloc collapsed in 1991, space exploration slowly began to run out of steam. Without a strong adversary to push it into a space race, NASA canceled its project during the 2000s. Constellation, which was to bring men back to the moon. But like a phoenix, it was when the space industry was at its worst that it found the key to its resurrection.

If the private sector had never really taken an interest in the stars, which were then the property of space agencies, the greatest billionaires of our time finally decided to spend lavishly to realize their dream: to conquer space. The sky has always held a passion over the centuries, and three of the wealthiest people on the planet decided they were going to make this childhood dream come true.

These three billionaires are today the bosses of the three largest New Space companies, namely Virgin Galactic, for the Englishman Richard Branson, Blue Origin, for Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and finally, SpaceX, the company of Elon Musk also owns the Tesla car brand. Different in their vision of space, these three companies have many points in common, but also notable differences. Virgin Galactic, for example, is the only one of the three companies to use a rocket plane, and not a conventional stage rocket.

Virgin Galactic: the ugly duckling

The company was founded in 2004, at the instigation of British billionaire Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin group, and a real jack-of-all-trades. Very quickly, the company differentiated its approach to space from the competition. It specializes in space tourism, and has conducted numerous test flights since the early 2010s. Its objective: to be the first private company to send people into space. Something that will be done on July 11, 2021 with a first manned flight. Unlike SpaceX or Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic decides to build a rocket plane, and not a classic rocket with a first stage and thrusters.

The concept of the rocket plane is not revolutionary, but it remains very atypical in the landscape of new space. To date no other rocket plane project has achieved the same feats of Virgin Galactic. Only the X-15, an American fighter plane from the 1960s already used this design. In particular, it allowed Neil Armstrong to make his first forays into space, long before he made history with the Apollo 11 mission.

An X-15 aircraft during a flight in 1959 © NASA

Using the features of the American fighter plane, Virgin Galactic has developed a carrier plane, the WhiteKnightTwo. The latter carries the rocket plane, the SpaceShipTwo, to an altitude of 14 kilometers, higher than conventional airliners. Once at this height, the SpaceShipTwo takes control, it unhooks from the fuselage and dives several tens of kilometers high before dropping in free fall, offering a feeling of weightlessness in the cabin.

The SpaceShipTwo and the WhiteKnightTwo during a demonstration flight in 2010 © Jeff Foust

Despite the success of the flight of July 11, 2021, which made Richard Branson the first entrepreneur to go into space with his own rocket, many controversies exist on this exploit. Indeed, Branson’s rocket plane never exceeded 100 kilometers, which is the internationally recognized boundary between the upper atmosphere and space. In addition, the FAA conducted a months-long investigation against Branson’s company because the SpaceShipTwo veered off course during its ascent into space. Finally, when it returned to the ground, the rocket plane would have been badly damaged by the flight, and Virgin Galactic would still not be able to ensure a tourist flight to space without risk.

Blue Origin: the Poulidor of space

Another company to have already carried out a manned flight in space: Blue Origin. The firm was founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos himself. A great lover of space, the founder of Amazon, who had just entered the very closed circle of billionaires, was already full of ambition at the time, and was counting on going into space one day. To do so, you had to give yourself the means to get there, something that took him 20 years.

When the company was created at the turn of the millennium, the objective was to find a way to lower the cost of access to space by working in particular on the recovery and reuse of launchers. An idea that is now largely attributed to SpaceX, since it is the first company to have achieved such a feat.

In direct competition with Elon Musk’s company, Blue Origin continues its development. The company already has the New Shepard rocket named in honor of Alan Shepard, the first American to have reached space, a few months after the Soviet Yuri Gagarin in 1961. This rocket has already reached space twice during manned flight. The first, on July 20, allowed Jeff Bezos to enter space, nine days after Richard Branson.

A New Shepard rocket landing in 2017 © Blue Origin

The world of new space is full of businesses of all kinds, each with their own specialty. But the behemoths Blue Origin or SpaceX are the rare firms capable of building their rocket from A to Z with such a success rate in flight. This is how Blue Origin has been producing its own engines, the Be-3, for years now.

It is also expected that they will be replaced by the Be-4 in the coming years. The construction of rocket engines remains one of the most complex stages for these companies. Until the early 2000s, it was an obscure domain controlled only by space agencies and a few historical private companies like Lockheed Martin.

Thanks to its advanced and reliable development, Blue Origin came to rub shoulders with Virgin Galactic in its field: space tourism. Offering a more diversified offer than that of the British company, Jeff Bezos’ company has made space tourism one of its strengths. With two flights under its belt at the time of writing, it is now the company most present in this brand new market. Although SpaceX is still and always a major adversary, the only private firm capable of carrying out manned orbital flights, for the moment.

But Jeff Bezos’ company is not limited to making “flea jumps” at the edge of space. Indeed, the company is aiming higher, and bigger. In 2022 it should take off for the first time its super heavy launcher, New Glen, capable of placing 45 tons in orbit thanks to the thrust of its 7 Be-4 engines. But there is another file on which the company has been working for years, and which has ignited space news in recent months.

This is NASA’s HLS question. Without going into the technical details of this complex file, a summary of which you can find here, Blue Origin is in direct confrontation with SpaceX and NASA to be part of the American space agency’s Artemis program. This major project provides neither more nor less than to send men back to the Moon, and Jeff Bezos does not want to miss this appointment with history.

The Blue Moon project during its presentation by Jeff Bezos © Blue Origin

With his Blue Moon concept, Jeff Bezos and his company were in the race for a time to land this two billion dollar contract, but NASA’s high authorities finally refused the Blue Origin project, in favor of SpaceX’s Starship. . Quite upset by this decision by Bill Nelson, Jeff Bezos and his company have since been mired in a legal battle. If the recent decisions of the Senate ended up giving reason to Blue Origin, the firm maintains more than tense relations with the high authorities of NASA.

SpaceX: The indisputable master of the air

In 2021, it’s impossible to mention space without talking about SpaceX. Elon Musk’s business is everywhere. If Blue Origin is its biggest rival, the company of Jeff Bezos remains an adversary well below the capabilities of SpaceX. The Texas firm dominates the air, like it or not. Where Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are struggling to cross the Karman line, SpaceX is already sending astronauts and tourists into orbit. SpaceX just doesn’t box in the same category as the others.

The sn15 prototype taking off © SpaceX

Proof of its above-average status, SpaceX plans to launch a mission to the Moon, dubbed DearMoon. In the same way asinspiration4 it is entirely financed by an external client and should give another stature to the company. The latter is indeed capable of the same missions as the national agencies such as NASA or ESA.

Today, it is the only private company to shuttle between Earth and the ISS. Frenchman Thomas Pesquet left to join the international space station aboard a Crew Dragon capsule from the firm, and it is also expected that the astronaut from Rouen will also return with the capsule from the Texan company during this month of November.

With the development of its Starship, the biggest spacecraft of the brand, SpaceX does not deny itself anything, and the company hopes to one day be able to go to Mars and set up a colony there. In view of the disproportionate ambitions of the big boss, Elon Musk, only time seems to be a barrier for SpaceX, which continues and always continues its march forward.

The passage of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites © Stefan Kuehn

In addition to these deep space missions, SpaceX does not forget to offer solutions for the seven billion people left on Earth. With Starlink, a satellite Internet offer, the Texas company launches hundreds of satellites every year. This offer allows SpaceX to finance the rest of its missions and its development, which could allow Elon Musk’s company to be New Space’s first profitable space company.

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