What Blue Origin's launch means for students and amateurs

Blue Origin set a milestone in reusable spaceflight on Friday when it launched its suborbital rocket for the second time. The mainstream media focused on the competition between Jeff Bezos, CEO of both Blue Origin and Amazon, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. But the cult-of-personality coverage misses the impact Blue Origin will have on a different industry - one that will change education and citizen science much sooner than the launching of satellites.

Who are Blue Origin's competitors?

Blue Origin's New Shepard is a suborbital rocket. It flies high enough - more than 100 kilometers - to cross the official boundary of outer space. But it does not have enough power to reach orbit. New Shepard's capsule, released at the top of the rocket flight, coasts upwards before parachuting back to Earth. Passengers and cargo will experience several minutes of zero-g (technically called microgravity) during the coasting phase.

Without the ability to reach orbit, Blue Origin's competition is not SpaceX. It is other suborbital spaceflight providers. That ranges from traditional suborbital sounding rockets to privately-developed reusable suborbital rockets to prospective suborbital rocket-planes.

The history of suborbital sounding rockets traces back to the origins of the Space Age. The founder of American rocket science, Robert Goddard, presented papers about the use of scientific sounding rockets in the 1920's and 1930's.

Goddard's tradition continues at Nasa's Wallops Flight Facility (appropriately part of the Goddard Space Flight Center) which conducts about 20 suborbital rocket launches a year. The smallest rocket launched at Wallops reaches the same 100 kilometer altitude as New Shepard. Nasa's largest suborbital rocket climbs as high as 1,400 kilometers above Earth's surface - beyond the orbits of most satellites. The scientific payloads that ride these rockets come from Nasa's in-house scientists and Nasa-funded university researchers. Wallops also launches of microgravity experiments built by undergraduate students.

Nasa launched the Flight Opportunities Program in part to foster commercial providers of suborbital rocket launches and high altitude balloon flights. The space agency contracts with its flight providers to test advanced technologies.

Colorado-based UP Aerospace is one of the Flight Opportunities Program's suborbital launch providers. It's SpaceLoft vehicle can carry payloads more than 100 kilometers high and provides as much as 6.5 minutes of microgravity. Last November UP Aerospace conducted its tenth SpaceLoft launch. After an 18-minute flight, the rocket landed on the White Sands Missile Range where it was recovered for re-use on a future launch.

California-based Masten Aerospace is Nasa's second commercial suborbital launch provider. It's reusable Xaero launch vehicle only climbs to 30 kilometers to support a different kind of mission than UP Aerospace. Masten's platform lets technology development programs test control systems for solar system exploration missions and other applications.

The Ansari X-Prize inspired visions of rocket-powered spaceplane industry back in 2005. That's when Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne became the first winged aircraft to cross the space boundary twice. British millionaire Richard Branson founded Virgin Galactic in 2004 to commercialize Rutan's technology. XCor Aerospace's rocket-plane visions predate the X-Prize. Founded in 1999, the company develops its own Lynx vehicle in the arid deserts of Mojave, California. Both companies promise to carry wealthy tourists and microgravity experiments across the boundary of space. Neither company has managed to do it.

The New Shepard sans-capsule lands for the second time. Credit: Blue Origin 

Squeezing the suborbital business

Blue Origin makes the same promises as its spaceplane competitors: frequent launches made possible by reusable technology will lower the cost of suborbital launches. That will let the company carry scientific payloads and give wealthy tourists the astronaut experience. Unlike Virgin Galactic and XCor Aerospace, Blue Origin's has momentum carrying it forward.

The company successfully launched and relaunched a suborbital rocket 100 kilometers into space within the span of two months - despite the distractions of the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years holidays. XCor Aerospace has yet to begin test flights of its Lynx vehicle. Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two engine redesigns and a mid-flight accident has left the company grounded. Both companies claim they will conduct test flights this year and begin operations a year or two later, but neither company has a track record of meeting their schedules.

Blue Origin could take the wind out of its competitors' sails if it keeps its momentum going. At the same time it could validate space advocates' visions of a burgeoning market for suborbital spaceflight.

The physics we know changes once gravity is missing from the equation. Credit: Nasa

Microgravity for everyone? 

Today's Nasa-sponsored suborbital market is not particularly large. UP Aerospace only launched one Flight Opportunities Program mission last year. The Wallops Flight Facility only launches about 20 suborbital rockets a year - and most of those fly much higher than any of the commercial companies can deliver.

The case for commercial suborbital spaceflight goes like this: reusability will allow companies to fly the same vehicle over and over again and change the economics of suborbital launches. A report on Nasa's suborbital research program published in 2010 by the National Academies of Science said, "Access to commercial suborbital spaceflight has the potential to open up a new realm in research and development." The Commercial Spaceflight Federation believes reducing the cost of microgravity flights to $1,000 per kilogram will "allow unprecedented access to the space environment."

Those same economic forces would also open the door for everyone else as prices fall to ranges that fit within the discretionary budgets of universities, small businesses, amateur scientists, and secondary schools. How realistic is that?

Consider the Student Spaceflight Experiments Program. It already sends dozens of student experiments to the International Space Station every year. These aren't graduate students or even undergraduates. They come from middle and high schools across the United States and Canada. Local communities pay the $23,000 cost from school budgets and fundraising. An order of magnitude reduction in the cost could make microgravity research a standard hands-on experience for the next generation of scientists and engineers. 

These economics also apply in higher education. While costs remain high, the only opportunities to conduct suborbital research are those funded by government grants. Lower costs would let university biology, physics, and other departments fund research - especially undergraduate research - from discretionary budgets. 

Worth noting: the same company that makes the SSEP possible, Nanoracks, has the contract to manage experiments on Blue Origin's New Shepard. A well designed program like the SSEP that targets the education markets could create a flood of student research.

Jeff Bezos has been refreshingly reticent about Blue Origin's plans, preferring to celebrate its accomplishments rather than promote its promises. There's no telling whether his company is ready to take orders this year. But if it happens, Blue Origin's repeat performance may usher in a new era of amateur space exploration.