SpaceX vs Blue Origin – A Detailed Comparison in 2024

SpaceX logo vs Blue Origin logo

Table of Contents

By: Julia Seibert 

A long time ago, in a reality far, far, away, two rich guys founded their space companies. They both gazed to the sky and hoped to somehow be a part of it – one through planetary colonization, the other through giant space stations – but needed a rocket to get there. Twenty-odd years on, though, only one company has managed to taste the heavens. 

The winner was Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which has risen to become the world’s premier launch provider. Its Falcon 9 rockets lift off from Earth every few days, the self-landing boosters deftly touching back down, like clockwork, after every launch. The same can’t be said for its old rival, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin; despite beating SpaceX to the reusable rockets, Blue has yet to reach orbit, instead shuttling tourists to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere once in a while. Now, Blue’s looking to get back in the game. With a host of new projects up its sleeve, the company is plotting to mess with SpaceX’s dominance – but has it got what it takes?

Significance of SpaceX and Blue Origin In Space Industry

SpaceX is so significant in the space industry that there’d probably not be much of an industry without it. It launched almost a hundred times in 2023, sending up astronauts, probes, and satellites – not to mention thousands of its own Starlink internet satellites. Starlink is designed to become the company’s primary source of cash, but its launches helped SpaceX build up its own launch industry by providing a much-needed cheap way of sending things to space. 

Blue Origin hasn’t quite reached that level yet. It may have nailed its self-landing boosters a few weeks before SpaceX did, but it seems to have stopped there. Its suborbital New Shephard rocket is, so far, one of the only fruits of its labours; more recently, Blue’s new BE-4 engines lit up the sky underneath ULA’s Vulcan rocket. Like SpaceX, Blue snapped up a few NASA contracts for the near-ish future, including one for a lunar lander and a space station – but for now, its greatest achievement seems to have been sending William Shatner on a ten-minute hop to space.

SpaceX vs Blue Origin: Founding Stories and Founders’ Philosophies

SpaceX currently rules the scene, but initially, Musk didn’t even set out to start a space company; he simply wanted to send a greenhouse to Mars to get the public pumped about space exploration. He quickly found that nobody, not even NASA, could manage that, and realized what would soon become his guiding philosophy to all things space: if nobody’s out there colonizing the solar system, all known life in the universe could be wiped out by one giant catastrophe on Earth. 

So Musk decided to start with Mars, and after failing to secure a suitable rocket, he founded SpaceX in 2002. Four years later, the company blew up its first rocket (the comparatively tiny Falcon 1), which would happen two more times, almost driving the company into bankruptcy. The fourth launch’s much-needed success coincided with NASA awarding SpaceX a juicy contract, which the company put towards its partially reusable, now-iconic Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. With both now flying like a dream, SpaceX is focusing on building up a constellation of Starlink internet satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and getting its Mars rocket – the gigantic, fully reusable Starship – to stop exploding.

While SpaceX eyes Mars, Blue Origin envisions ‘millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of Earth’. The idea, describes Bezos, is to move polluting industries out into orbit and beyond to safeguard our planet’s environment. But the concept didn’t start with Blue; it was originally described by physicist Gerard O’Neill, who thought up the idea of giant cylindrical space stations in the 1970s. These stations, called O’Neill Cylinders, would be capable of housing thousands of people in an Earth-like environment. One day, Blue wants to put one trillion people aboard them, promising a dreamy climate; ‘This is Maui on its best day, all year long’, enthused Bezos in 2019 (as reported by The Guardian). First, though, Blue needs to get to orbit.

After its founding in 2000, Blue spent a couple of years huddled in secrecy as a quasi-think tank before beginning test flights of its first vehicle – the little Goddard rocket – in 2006. After a few years of testing, Bezos had hauled in enough money through Amazon that he could afford to stuff a yearly $1 billion into the company (as reported by Ars Technica). Blue moved on to its New Shepard rocket in 2011, nailing the first booster landing in 2015; a year later, it announced the development of a new heavy-lift rocket, called New Glenn, which has yet to embark on its maiden flight.

Technological Innovations and Contributions

Blue Origin might have stuck the first landing, but it is SpaceX’s orbital-class booster landings that have singlehandedly transformed the industry. As the most expensive part of the rocket, reusing the boosters after each flight saves the company tens of millions; even though SpaceX charges customers over quadruple the marginal launch cost, those prices are still nowhere near anything else in the industry. The prices-per-kilo to orbit of its Falcon Heavy – a Falcon 9 with two additional boosters, designed to lift heftier payloads – are even cheaper. SpaceX also reuses its payload fairings to save another few million. 

Thanks to these innovations, SpaceX is quickly building up a thousands-strong constellation of internet satellites, called Starlink, that is already the biggest collection of satellites in space by far (about half of the roughly 10,000 functional sats in orbit are Starlinks). And it’s far from finished; SpaceX hopes to ramp up launches when its Starship rocket becomes functional. But that rocket, the biggest ever flown, is a temperamental beast. SpaceX’s plan to eventually fly Starship as often as an airliner involves countless newfangled innovations designed to squeeze out every bit of efficiency. The rocket’s Raptor engines, for example, feature a spiffy plumbing system (called full flow staged combustion) that had never flown before Starship; while super-efficient, it’s an engineering nightmare. 

While Blue might not be able to compete just yet, it’s got a few innovations under its belt, too. One of these is its Blue Alchemist project, a method of making solar panels out of lunar dust. It’s also flown several sets of tourists on its New Shephard rocket; upon reaching space, the booster comes back down to land, while the capsule lingers in zero gravity for a few minutes before gently coming down via parachute. Another innovation is Blue’s BE-4 rocket engine, which made its debut during ULA’s maiden launch of its Vulcan rocket in early 2024. Like the Raptor, it runs on liquid oxygen and liquid methane – a newer fuel that’s all the rage these days – and clocks in at just under the Raptor’s efficiency. The BE-4s performed flawlessly during their first launch, paving the way for Blue to use them on a rocket of its own: the long-awaited New Glenn. This vehicle, around a hundred meters tall, is designed to work as a bigger Falcon 9, reusable booster and all. 

SpaceX vs Blue Origin: Key Missions and Projects

For its own vision, SpaceX needs to get Starlink making money and flying Starship regularly to prepare for Mars. That involves breakneck launch cadences on the Falcon 9 side of things as well as a rampant flight-testing campaign for Starship. Also, according to SpaceX’s former star propulsion engineer Tom Mueller, most of his later work at the company was spent figuring out how to survive on Mars using only local resources (SpaceX keeps quiet about this stuff). But while SpaceX is still Earth-based, it has some customers waiting. One of these is NASA, which has commissioned two Starships to use as lunar landers for the agency’s Artemis program. NASA wants to get the first landing done in 2026, but due to delays both with NASA and SpaceX, a slip of another one or two years is pretty likely. SpaceX is also under contract with NASA to fly astronauts, space probes, and cargo. Besides that, the company’s manifest includes countless other customers including other US governmental bodies, commercial satellite companies, and a few tourists. 

Blue Origin’s also got a few busy years coming. First on the to-do list is getting New Glenn to fly, which it hopes to do on its first try in the summer of 2024. Then, it’ll have to do it again… and again, until it can fly regularly and become a real competitor in the industry. Blue is also under contract with NASA to build a lunar lander – dubbed Blue Moon – that would be used for the third Artemis crewed landing (Artemis V), currently scheduled for 2029. Yet another project is its Blue Ring spacecraft, designed to serve as a space tug and propellant depot. Finally, Blue is also working on a space station in LEO called Orbital Reef, designed as an ‘orbital business park’ that can be occupied by professional astronauts, tourists, or both. The concept earned a contract from NASA and was scheduled for a 2027 launch, but in 2023, a shakeup with business partners Sierra Space left the future of the station uncertain.

Blue Origin vs SpaceX: Funding and Business Models

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are private companies, meaning they get investments from private sources; much of this stems from the founders themselves. The two have also snapped up several NASA or other governmental contracts, though SpaceX has more of them because, well, it has an orbital rocket. While Blue Origin is far from making a profit, SpaceX is beginning to turn the corner of its decades-long losses due to the rise of Starlink as well as its frequent commercial Falcon launches.

In terms of business models, SpaceX is all about keeping costs down and processes fast (as described in a report by Ars Technica). That means vertically integrating its business as much as it can, producing every last nail in-house if it’ll save a few bucks. Any outsourcing that costs over $10,000 has to be personally approved by Musk himself. With testing, time is of the essence; the company likes to blow up some rockets and see what happens, rather than wait around and make sure everything is perfect. The end goal is always reusability, which shortens turnaround time and slashes its Falcons’ launch costs. But being a part of that is no walk in the park: SpaceX hires young engineers, pushes them to work extremely long hours, and sometimes gets rid of the bottom 10% to ensure nobody dares take a break.

Blue, by comparison, does not seem to have adopted these practices; as of 2018, the company struggled with transparency, vertically integrating, and generally getting a move on. ‘I believe we study a little too much and do too little’ noted one Blue executive in 2018 (as reported by Ars Technica). Blue also reportedly takes price less seriously than SpaceX, seeing it as a non-urgent factor – whereas SpaceX rules the industry due to their bargain deals. These insights came from a sobering 2018 set of internal Blue Origin notes and memos (obtained by Ars) after management consulting firm Avascent gave executives a dressing-down on their shortcomings. Five years later, though, Blue is finally getting down to business, with Bezos recently vowing to speed things up. 

Challenges and Controversies

For all its successes, SpaceX is not without its shortcomings. Its main challenge at present is getting Starship working; given its track record for destroying prototypes to learn faster, this should come along quickly, but the bureaucratic hiccups made it a lengthy process. SpaceX, after all, set up its Starship facility smack bang in the middle of a nature reserve. Starship’s explosive first launch was comparable to a volcanic eruption and sent concrete flying through the air; though no serious damage was done, authorities were not amused. Starship also costs billions to develop, and getting Starlink customers – of which there are fewer than expected – to pay for it might also become challenging. 

But SpaceX’s most striking controversy is just how much the US government is dependent on it. First, there are the launches, since the US has few other options to send up its satellites. Then there is Starlink. After Russia invaded Ukraine in March 2022, Starlink quickly established itself as an invaluable method of communication for Ukrainians, both civilian and military. It also proved useful for carrying out drone strikes against Russian forces – which Musk, citing worries about escalation, did not approve of. As the service was donated by Musk and SpaceX, Musk could switch it off every time he fancied, causing widespread backlash; eventually, the Pentagon had to fork out a few million to continue providing Ukrainian military forces with the service.

Blue Origin doesn’t have those kinds of problems yet, but it has still garnered its fair share of difficulties. Most pressingly, it needs to sort out its sluggish internal processes and advance at a faster clip if it has any hope of keeping up with its peers. Its plan to pull off a flawless maiden New Glenn launch – carrying a NASA mission, no less – is a weighty challenge in itself. On the controversy side, Blue has had a lot to say for a company with such a meagre resume; the most noteworthy tantrum involved a bitter PR campaign and lawsuit after Blue lost its first Artemis lander bid to SpaceX. Blue managed to halt SpaceX’s progress for a few months – but ended up losing the suit too.

Broadening the Comparison: SpaceX vs Blue Origin vs Virgin Galactic

Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have been the butts of the billionaire space race joke, which Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is also a common subject of. It’s hard to not make the comparison, with all three founded around the same time by billionaires. But that’s also where the similarities end. While SpaceX rocketed ahead and Blue sports at least some plans to compete, Virgin seems to be focusing solely on the suborbital tourism industry. So far, it’s been flying passengers with its Unity spaceplane, flown to altitude via a carrier plane. It now plans to upgrade to a new class of suborbital vehicles, called Delta, to bring in more cash.

Looking at SpaceX and Blue Origin’s exploits, though, it’s clear that money – and lots of it – is key to doing business in space. But actually reaching it requires more: a game plan.

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