Photo Credit: Blue Origin
After years of relying almost exclusively on Jeffrey P. Bezos's fortune, Blue Origin now has a paying customer that will bring in a precious resource that has been scarce in the company's 17-year existence: revenue.
At a satellite conference Tuesday morning, Bezos announced that Eutelsat Communications, a French-based satellite company, has signed on to be the first customer of Blue Origin's New Glenn orbital rocket, which is under development but slated to fly by the end of the decade. (Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
The deal marks a significant milestone in the growth of the company, which for years had remained obsessively secretive. Bezos has said he has poured more than $500 million (roughly Rs. 3,332 crores) of his own money into it - but has received relatively little outside revenue.
But recently Blue Origin has stepped into the spotlight - as a sponsor of the satellite conference, its banners and logos are all over the Walter E. Washington Convention Center - and it is starting to accelerate its activities. It is working to revamp a launch complex at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, while also building a massive rocket manufacturing facility nearby.
Blue Origin's entrance into the commercial satellite market would put it in competition with Elon Musk's SpaceX, which has been flying satellites for commercial companies for years.
"I think this is a sign that the industry has actually got some legs that both of these companies are going to be moving forward," said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The mission to launch Eutelsat's satellite to geostationary orbit would come in 2021 or 2022.
Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, noted that Blue Origin probably would be competing against Arianespace, a French launch company.
"While there is a significant risk in using a new vehicle, satellite operators have shown that they want a diverse range of suppliers and not be tied to just one or two launch providers. Thus they will practice 'strategic sourcing' to ensure competitive alternatives," Pace said.
During a 23-minute question-and-answer session Tuesday, Bezos offered some new details about New Glenn, named after the late John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth. The rocket's first stage, or booster, is designed to be reusable. Once it delivers its payload to orbit, it would then fly back to Earth, landing on a ship at sea - a feat that SpaceX has been performing for about a year.
The New Glenn would be outfitted with strakes, or aerodynamic fins, to help fly the booster back to Earth without having to refire the engine. He also said that the rocket's BE-4 engines are designed to fly as many as 100 times. (Traditionally rockets dumped into the ocean after delivering their payload to orbit.)
"Our goal, and we won't stop until we achieve it, is to dramatically lower launch costs," Bezos said. "It's not going to be easy. It's going to take time. But we when we do achieve that goal, it will grow the entire industry. We'll reach a new equilibrium in this industry."
This year, it plans to begin crewed test flights of its suborbital New Shepard rocket. By next year, it could start flying paying tourists on trips that would cross the 62-mile barrier that's considered the edge of space.