ULA, Blue Origin, and SpaceX Race to a Fully Reusable Rocket

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Jeff Bezos' private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has been working more-or-less in "stealth mode" over the years. As such, they've made a lot fewer attention-grabbing headlines than both Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) - the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed. However, this week stands in contrast as Blue Origin succeeded in vertically landing a rocket that returned from space.

Elon Musk was quick to congratulate Jeff and the Blue Origin team on their vertical take off and landing (VTOL), however, he was also quick to point out the massive difference of Blue Origin's suborbital landing maneuver and his own attempts at landing a rocket from an orbital launch.

 

Imagine building (and paying for) a brand new Boeing or Airbus jumbo jet for every commercial flight from LAX to JFK. Such a radically high cost would make flying economically impossible for more than 99% of humanity. This is essentially what humans have been doing with spaceflight up until this point. Every launch mission needed to have its own brand-new rocket. 

Now the paradigm is beginning to shift as the ambitions of ULA, SpaceX, and Blue Origin all are paving the way forward for reusable rockets. This shift will completely change the economics of space flight. Seeing multiple parties competing and working together on this front could dramatically accelerate reduction in the price of getting cargo - and people - up into space.

Watch the video released by Blue Origin and imagine the possibilities of this new frontier:

While Musk may be technically correct, this is still an exciting development. More talented teams working on this can only increase the competition and encourage further technological advancement. 

As news sites are quick to call this a decisive win for Bezos, this must be another blow to Musk and the entire SpaceX crew as landing a rocket was a major public goals of theirs. A goal that they've come close to - and failed. Hopefully they will take this defeat in good spirits and use it as motivation. To their credit, they've gotten really close on their more difficult orbital launch and landing attempts:

The United Launch Alliance is taking a different approach. They're actually partnering with Blue Origin on the next generation Vulcan rocket. Instead of sourcing its RD-180 rocket engines from Russia, the ULA will use the new American-made BE-4 engines designed by Blue Origin. It too is now seeking to reduce launch costs by recovering the booster body, though their method involves slowing its descent and recovering it midair. 

"In this approach, when the booster is done and you are finished with the rocket engines, we will cut them off. We will return them to the Earth using an advanced, inflatable, hypersonic heat shield. And then, with a very low, simplified logistics footprint, we'll recover them in midair and return them to the factory to quickly recertify them, and then plop them under the next booster to fly. This will take up to 90 percent of the propulsion cost out of the booster," said ULA CEO Tory Bruno