Earlier today Blue Origin launched and landed one of its rockets for the fourth time. That is, it has used the same hardware on four separate launches. While this is a better record than SpaceX (which had a crash following its latest launch), SpaceX did have three consecutive launches and landings, and its rockets are also delivering payloads into orbit. The mission this rocket supported was the deployment of two satellites into geostationary transfer orbit. This requires more fuel, meaning the margin of error for a landing is much smaller due to less fuel being available for maneuvering. The specific problem was identified as a lack of sufficient thrust in one of the Falcon 9’s three engines, and the company has been working on this problem since before this crash. While this breaks SpaceX’s streak of consecutive landings, both it and Blue Origin can now claim four successful landings each.
Blue Origin remains a suborbital operation at the present time, and used this latest launch to test the parachutes on its crew capsule. The near-term goal for Blue Origin is to deliver tourists into space (though not orbit, at least not at first). To that end, future tests will include versions of the crew capsule that more closely resemble the tourist vehicle they want to start using with humans in 2018.
That same year, SpaceX intends to start a more aggressive program – getting to Mars. At the recent Code Conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk outlined how he sees the company eventually getting people to Mars. It starts with a cargo route. By establishing a regular series of flights to the Red Planet, costs can be spread across the flights and the regularity can encourage clients (researchers, scientists, etc.) to pay for space on those flights. Musk wants to start these flights in 2018, with an eye toward launching a crewed vehicle (a bigger version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule called Red Dragon) to Mars in 2024, with a landing in 2025. Now, should there be problems in any of the previous flights, the first human mission would likely be pushed further out. But I expect that SpaceX will try and leverage any and all of its paid flights for testing aspects of their technology that would be used on this so-called cargo route.
Where is NASA in all of this? They will provide ‘technical support’ for SpaceX in its 2018 mission, in exchange for access to the mission data. It would inform NASA’s own Mars plans, which currently have humans landing on Mars in the 2030s. (It should be noted that the typical competing Congressional and Presidential visions for the agency will flare up again after the election, and NASA’s plans may change.)