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Blue Origin working to make 2nd stage of New Glenn reusable

Capitalism in space: According to this Ars Technica article by Eric Berger yesterday, Blue Origin has begun working on a project dubbed Jarvis, focused on making the upper stage of its orbital and as yet unlaunched New Glenn rocket reusable.

Bezos had been asking his senior staffers about reusable upper stages, but advisers told him such an approach was unlikely to work, sources said. Bezos also seems to have been told the SpaceX “fail forward” method of rapidly prototyping and testing Starships, with few processes and procedures, would be unlikely to succeed.

However, over the last year, Bezos took note as SpaceX launched and landed its Starship vehicle. This is one of the reasons he decided to initiate a project named “Jarvis” at Blue Origin within the reusable second-stage program. Sources said Bezos has walled off parts of the second-stage development program from the rest of Blue Origin and told its leaders to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted sentences indicate evidence that the management that Bezos brought in to run Blue Origin for him in 2017 was definitely old school big space managers, with limited vision and timid about risk-taking, and that Bezos is beginning to recognize this and shift control of the company away from them.

This is excellent news, and suggests that we shall finally see some real progress at Blue Origin, something that has been lacking for the past four years. It also suggests that Bezos now recognizes he needs to make his rocket competitive with what SpaceX has, and is taking steps to make that happen

Isn’t competition and freedom wondeful? When allowed to flourish it makes things happen fast, and with amazing daring.

Conscious Choice cover

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  • Mark

    Is Bezoz throwing 2 Billion of his own money to make this happen? He was willing to waive that amount to get a contract from NASA.

  • Jay

    How very un-Amazon like of him…. maybe he took a page out of the Kelly Johnson (Skunkworks) book on management, which is only one page long. Hearing from people who have worked for Amazon and AWS engineering groups they are high stress jobs with heavy handed management (micro-management). I wonder if it is like that over at the Kuiper Group?

    Will this second stage be a skip and glide back or one side of the stage has a heat shield and lands with parachutes?

  • Col Beausabre

    “Sources said Bezos has walled off parts of the second-stage development program from the rest of Blue Origin and told its leaders to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes.”

    Bezos is only about 80 years behind the times.

    “. The designation “skunk works” or “skunkworks” is widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, with the task of working on advanced or secret projects.”

    The unnamed predecessor to the famous Lockheed group was set up as early as July 1938 – ” a small group of engineers was assigned to fabricate the first prototype of what would become the P-38 Lightning. Kelly Johnson set them apart from the rest of the factory in a walled-off section of one building, off limits to all but those involved directly.”

    The founding of what became the formal Skunk Works organization was in June 1943 to develop the XP-80 jet fighter ASAP.

  • Col Beausabre and others: No one has suggested at all that Bezos was inventing this type of management approach. The point is that he is doing it, which suggests that he is becoming disenchanted with the upper management of the company in general, and wants to begin protecting the company from its own management.

    What he needs to do is make this Jarvis division the standard for the entire company, firing the managers who said SpaceX was going to fail.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Glad that BO is doing this. That said, seems a difficult step to reengineer the 2nd stage without looking at the whole system. They could easily end up with a system that is complexly reusable and carries 100 pounds of payload.

    I believe that was one reason why all the reuse strategies for Saturn 5 stages foundered, that and low launch levels.

    So best of luck to Bezo’s team but they may have to go solidly back to the drawing board setting them further behind SpaceX.

  • Jeff Wright

    Speaking of low cost, there was a Saturn-based concept named “Jarvis.” Pyrios was similar. Now, early Angara drawings had low-cost kerosene drop tanks on the side. I might go for a tri-propellant design in the upper stage.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “This is excellent news, and suggests that we shall finally see some real progress at Blue Origin

    I commented a few days ago that Bezos should have ideas to bring to Blue Origin, now that he is less distracted by running Amazon. It looks like he is already on the case and making progress.

    From the Ars Technica article:

    However, over the last year, Bezos took note as SpaceX launched and landed its Starship vehicle. This is one of the reasons he decided to initiate a project named “Jarvis” at Blue Origin

    It looks like more people are learning from SpaceX’s idea of going back to rapid development, as was done in aerospace until about half a century ago.

    So, yes, Robert, the point is well taken that Bezos is shifting focus and priorities away from OldSpace thinking and toward NewSpace thinking, which is in reality OldOldSpace thinking. We should expect him to do so, because his is a NewSpace company.

    As more and more companies start thinking like this, we should see companies competing head to head with the Falcons and the Starships. SpaceX has left room for improvement, because they did not look for perfection. They looked for revenue operations so that the price to orbit would come down sooner rather than later — a major goal for SpaceX. It may seem impossible to compete with SpaceX, but that is only because other companies are a few years behind them.

    For now, at least, the company’s plan is to launch New Glenn initially with an expendable second stage before transitioning to the fully reusable upper stage in the mid-2020s.

    Begin revenue operations in order to stay in business, then work on optimization.

    Bezos and Blue Origin may be getting a jump on Musk and SpaceX:

    Sources said that Bezos recently greenlighted two other major projects, one related to in-space propulsion and another focusing on developing and demonstrating in situ resource-utilization technologies for the Moon and beyond.

    It looks like this coming decade will be much more exciting than the previous decade. We have multiple companies working on commercializing several aspects of the space industries, not just the launch industry.

  • pzatchok

    Could atmospheric skipping be used to slow down a second stage enough that it could eventually enter the atmosphere at a slow enough speed to soft land?

    Instead of aerobreaking all at once like the shuttle did. Drop in and heat up to a limit and then skip back out to cool off. Repeat as often as needed.

    Its not like there is a time limit on flights.

  • A. Nonymous

    Remember that StarShip was only partly a way to get a Martian city. It was also born out of an attempt to cut costs by returning the F9’s second stage from orbit. SpaceX looked into this for several months, and apparently concluded that so much mass was required in the form of fuel and heat shields and the only way to square the circle was to make the second stage much, much larger, which required a much, much larger first stage, which also merged quite nicely with their long-term goal of Martian settlement…

    In short, it’s questionable as to how much payload NG will be able to get to orbit and still recover the second stage. They may have to scale up both booster and second stage, just as SpaceX had to scale up from the F9.

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked: “Could atmospheric skipping be used to slow down a second stage enough that it could eventually enter the atmosphere at a slow enough speed to soft land?

    The short answer is no. You are thinking of a concept called “skip entry,” which is limited in its ability to slow the spacecraft before reentry.

    A longer answer is that if you have control enough to raise altitude then come back to the lower altitude, and you may (or may not) be able to do this more than once until you are too slow to do it anymore, but you are still traveling close to orbital speed. I have seen a paper that suggested this might be able to be done once, during a reentry from orbit, and it helps reduce speed, but you still need serious heat shielding. The Apollo spacecraft did some of this during their reentry.

    Skipping out of the atmosphere is more likely when coming from a high altitude or from infinity, such as the Moon, but there is still a limited amount that can be done before there is not enough speed to do it again. Skipping out of the atmosphere from infinity in order to get into orbit is a maneuver called aerocapture.

    As long as Blue Origin is willing to design from scratch another version of an upper stage, I think that they have a good chance of figuring out an economical way of recovering and reusing it. If they want to retrofit their current design, then they likely will have troubles being economical. I can’t think of how to describe a couple of my own ideas, but I think that there is a reasonable chance of doing this without carrying the fairing all the way to space, as Starship will.

    Some people think inside the box. Others think outside the box. I like to say that these guys think off the planet. The space environment is so much different from ours that it takes this kind of revolutionary thinking to get to the good stuff that space can do for us. Because we continue to think like Earthers, we think that colonizing Mars is a good idea, but Gerard K. O’Neill realized that there is tremendous energy savings by putting the colonies in orbit, especially high orbit, if you want to travel between planets or asteroids. Going to and from the surface of the Moon is bad enough, but Mars and Earth are killer.

  • Edward

    pzatchok asked: “Could atmospheric skipping be used to slow down a second stage enough that it could eventually enter the atmosphere at a slow enough speed to soft land?

    The Space Shuttle did something like this. It stayed high in the atmosphere by being a lifting body (the wings didn’t work like wings until later in the landing). It still got hot, and needed a heat shield, but because it stayed high enough it avoided needing an ablative heat shield like the NASA capsules had and have. Ablation is the liquefaction of the heat shield in order to carry away the heat of reentry. Staying high in the atmosphere allows the heating to be less so that the heat shield can handle the low rate of heating. The trick is to have the lift to stay high even as the spacecraft slows well under orbital speed. The angular momentum will stop being enough to keep the craft from sinking so deep into the thicker part of the atmosphere that ablation is required.

    Starship will do something to slow down at a high enough altitude that its heat shield will either not ablate, like the Shuttle, or will only lightly ablate, so that it does not need to be replaced very often. Either Starship will have some amount of lift, or it will be large and empty enough (large cross-sectional area per unit weight) to slow down fast enough while still high that by the time it gets too deep into the atmosphere it is already so slow that ablation won’t be necessary.

    So it should be possible for Blue Origin to do something similar with their upper stage.

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