January 25, 2023

In the space race of billionaires, SpaceX seems to be taking a big chunk of the spotlight thanks to owner Elon Musk.

However, rival Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is quietly working on big plans.

Last year, the company launched its first human flight with Bezos on it. For now, space travel seems only made for the wealthy, but Blue Origin’s Senior Director for Emerging Markets, Erika Wagner, believes this could change.

“The cost of access to space has been falling reliably for decades. We are seeing innovations in missile reusability that are really changing the game,” Wagner told Metro.co.uk.

She describes space travel so far as being akin to flying from London to Dubai and throwing your plane away.

Erika Wagner Blue Origin

Erika Wagner, Senior Director for Emerging Markets at Blue Origin, tells us about the company’s plans for the future (Photo: Erika Wagner)

‘We’ve been doing that with rockets for decades’

If successfully reusing rockets could be the key to making space travel affordable, Blue Origin is a pioneer.

The company’s New Shepard was the first reusable rocket to successfully make a soft landing, beating SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster by several weeks.

Blue origin New Glenn

The new Glenn will be a Saturn V-class rocket that will carry large payloads to Earth orbit and to the Moon and beyond (Photo: Blue Origin)

“The New Shepard rocket had its first flight in 2015 and became the first rocket to go into space, come back down and be used again,” Wagner said.

The same principle is applied to Blue Origin’s newer rocket, the New Glenn.

“It will be a very large Saturn V-class rocket that will carry large payloads to Earth orbit and to the Moon and beyond”

For now, the company is looking at reusing the first stage of the rocket, but ultimately wants to “reuse the entire rocket.”

“The world is starting to think so normally now. My kids launched model rockets and they ran into the field and brought it back and asked me for another engine because rockets fly again, right? This is going to be something that even schoolchildren understand,” she said.

The last time Blue Origin made the news was because one of their rockets caught fire minutes after launch in September. That was also a New Shepard missile.

Blue Origin

After the incident, Blue Origin’s fleet of New Shepard missiles was grounded (Image: Reuters)

The mission, named NS-23, was the first New Shepard launch without humans on board in more than a year and the fourth mission in 2022.

Wagner explained how the NS-23 mission was a payload mission carrying science experiments and not humans. The capsule itself managed to escape from the rocket.

So the capsule came and landed safely back at the lunch spot. We were able to extract the cargo from the capsule and return it to our customers,” Wagner said.

Following the incident, Blue Origin’s fleet of New Shepard missiles was grounded until the FAA concluded an internal investigation. Wagner tells us the company is “working on that with the FAA right now.”

“We always want to make sure we fully understand all our anomalies before flying again. So we’re in the process of doing that and as soon as we’re ready to fly safely again, we will,” Wagner said.

So we won’t see any Blue Origin missiles take off until they get permission from the FAA.

Space station

In addition to launching rockets, however, Blue Origin has set its sights on a larger project: the Orbital Reef space station.

Orbital reef

Orbital Reef should be before the ISS due date in 2030 (Photo: Getty Images)

With NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) reaching its end of life in 2030, the US has awarded $415.6 million to private companies to develop privately owned and operated commercial space stations and Blue Origin is one of them.

Last year, NASA awarded Blue Origin $130 million for its Orbital Reef space station, in partnership with Sierra Space and Boeing.

“If we go to the Moon and Mars, we will continue to need low Earth orbit. It’s the closest to home and the most affordable place for us to train astronauts, conduct medical research and develop technologies,” Wagner said.

Orbital Reef will also move beyond research purposes to accommodate more commercial and consumer applications.

“So you could imagine a space hotel or a space movie studio or other things that put you and me in space,” Wagner said.

While that sounds too science fiction to be true, it could happen much sooner than we think. Wagner explained that Orbital Reef should be before the ISS due date in 2030.

“Nasa has said it wants to do a two-year transition. So by the end of the decade, Orbital Reef will be there.”

Working and playing in space is therefore not a far-fetched dream. Orbital Reef can also be vital for NASA’s Artemis Program which is set to return humans to the moon by 2024 to establish a sustainable human presence there.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin is looking at reusing the first stage of the rocket, but eventually plans to move to ‘reusing the whole rocket’ (Photo: Blue Origin)

“Now we’re building the technologies and economies that make it logical for us to go back, not just to put footprints and flags, but this time to stay,” Wagner said of the 50-year wait to get back to the moon .

“The computers that brought Apollo to the moon… your phone is more powerful than that.”

A bigger picture

Wagner talks about “lunar permanence” where humanity brings the moon into our embrace as part of who we are and what we do.

“I think we’re finally at that point with reusable rockets and powerful computers that lower the cost of the technology and increase the economic benefits of the data coming back to stay this time around.

This ties in with Blue Origin’s goals for space tourism, but Wagner tells us about the bigger picture.

“We have a vision of a future where millions of people live and work in space for the benefit of the Earth. It’s not just about going or using the room as an escape hatch,” she said.

‘There is room for all of us. So we’re really invested in the infrastructure. We’re building the road to space so everyone can ride it’

So we’re talking about settlements on the moon and Mars?

‘Settlements are certainly a possibility. The Artemis program will have missions to the moon. So how do we move from missions to communities? I think that’s a very interesting question,” Wagner said.

Blue Origin

Working and playing in space is not a far-fetched dream after all (Photo: Blue Origin)

Last year, NASA has awarded an exclusive contract to SpaceX for $2.9 billion to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon. It beat out Blue Origin and defense contractor Dynetics, who had both submitted proposals for the lunar lander contract.

While this was a blow to Blue Origin, Wagner says they continue to invest in their lunar capabilities.

“There is now a NASA contract for Sustaining Lunar Development coming up. We look forward to going back to the moon to stay at this time.”

As of September, NASA was seeking proposals to develop a lunar lander for missions beyond Artemis III, and Blue Origin appears to be chasing that contract.

Blue Origin’s rivalry with SpaceX is hard to ignore, but Wagner tells us of Bezos’ philosophy in which “there are two kinds of companies: conquerors and explorers.”

“Conquerors always look at what the other companies are doing, and explorers always look to the horizon. We are focused on the horizon. We’re trying to figure out what the market needs and what the planet needs,” said Wagner.

Blue origin

NS-22 Astronaut Clint Kelly III at peak (Photo: Blue Origin)

So what does Blue Origin think the market and the planet need?

“We are focused on thinking about space for the benefit of the Earth, keeping three things in mind. The first is that we need to get radical reductions in launch costs and affordable, reliable access to space.”

“Once you have affordable, reliable access to space, you figure out how to utilize space. How do we use the resources of space, whether it be energy or minerals or other things that are there to serve our planet?’

“The third point is that space travel is such a long-term endeavor that we need to inspire the next generation. We need to do staff development and inspiration because these are not things that happen in my life or yours. These are things that last generations,’

Wagner alludes to the overview effect, a cognitive shift some astronauts report while viewing Earth from space.

‘They have a very different sense of the fragility of our planet, the importance of connecting with humanity and the fact that there are no boundaries from space’

The question is when will we get to the point where our children or even we can afford to go to space to experience this?

“I don’t know, but I’m definitely excited to get the chance to go to space one day,” Wagner said.

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