BY Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
— 10:57 AM ET 03/07/2017
The space-transportation company run by Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN) chairman and CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday announced European satellite operator Eutelsat SA is its first commercial launch customer, highlighting progress in developing a world- class rocket that could compete with existing boosters in as soon as a few years.
With a blastoff date slated for 2021, the agreement catapults Blue Origin LLC, founded in 2000 by the Amazon (AMZN) chief and billionaire entrepreneur, into a position to potentially vie for launch business from other global satellite firms. Work on the massive rocket that is intended to boost the satellite into orbit, called New Glenn, wasn't revealed by Blue Origin until late last year.
But Tuesday's joint announcement, made at an international trade show in Washington, represents Blue Origin's emergence as a force in the commercial satellite world. From the outset, the rocket was intended to be reusable, and Mr. Bezos said during his presentation that it is being designed to fly as many as 100 times.
Underscoring Blue Origin's growth, Mr. Bezos said the company, headquartered in a Seattle suburb, now has more than 1,000 employees. The company expects a two-stage version of the New Glenn Rocket to blast a payload of up to 13 tons into low-Earth orbit.
Once a major satellite company develops enough trust in a newly designed rocket to commit to a maiden launch -- even if it is at a sharply reduced price -- launch contracts with other operators typically follow.
Neither Mr. Bezos nor Eutelsat (EUTLF) disclosed the price of the anticipated launch, but traditionally such introductory missions have involved as much as a 70% cut from the projected full prices.
Most importantly for Blue Origin, which hasn't yet conducted a full-fledged test flight of its big booster, the contract with Eutelsat (EUTLF) adds to the credibility of the Blue Origin team.
Plans for heavy-lift boosters previously unveiled by Mr. Bezos, including one version roughly half as powerful as the iconic Saturn V rockets that lifted Apollo astronauts to the moon, ultimately could emerge as rivals with powerful rockets already under development by fellow billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is working on its own version of a deep-space booster and capsule.
The two-stage version of the New Glenn rocket, named after the late U.S. astronaut and senator John Glenn, previously was described by Blue Origin as 270 feet tall, and able to generate nearly 3.9 million pounds of thrust from seven main engines. A larger, three-stage version would be more 310 feet tall.
With a few exceptions, Mr. Bezos has opted to run Blue Origin since its founding at the beginning of the last decade behind a strict veil of secrecy -- and without seeking substantial federal contracts or development funding. As expected, however, Tuesday's announcement creates somewhat greater transparency.
Last fall, Mr. Bezos rocked the international aerospace community by disclosing some particulars of the New Glenn rocket. If it begins commercial flights within four years as intended, the booster also would become a competitor for Europe's premier launch provider Arianespace and United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Over the years, Mr. Bezos has stressed the importance of creating reusable technology capable of slashing transportation costs by operating much more frequently than today's rockets. He also has talked about his long-term vision of "millions of people living and working in space."
The announcement came a day after Mr. Bezos released the first photographs of a fully-assembled BE-4 engine, which will power New Glenn into orbit.
In conjunction with his speech at the satellite conference, Mr. Bezos continued his pattern of focusing on long- term goals of space exploration and settlement. In a message posted on Twitter, the self-described "space geek" pointedly said he and his company "can't wait to take you to space."
Mr. Bezos told conference attendees that in order to make space transportation less expensive, the eventual goal ought to be to make rocket launches comparable to commercial aircraft operations. SpaceX's Mr. Musk and other commercial-space champions have echoed the same sentiments over the years.
New Glenn piggybacks on development of Blue Origin's simpler, suborbital New Shepard launch system, a single-stage rocket and capsule designed to fly fare-paying tourists some 60 miles above the planet. Test flights with crew members aboard are expected to begin sometime this year, with commercial operations starting perhaps a year later.
Basking in the glow of his new role as a satellite launch provider, Mr. Bezos told the audience, "we couldn't hope for a better first partner."
Based in Paris, Eutelsat (EUTLF) has more than three dozen satellites circling the Earth and provides services that include video broadcasting, news gathering and broadband connections. Started as an international satellite organization in the 1970s, it became a private company in 2001.
Write to Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org