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Look Out, Elon: Jeff Bezos's Space Company Just Launched a Rocket

Blue Origin, a SpaceX competitor, finally launched its first test rocket.
Image: Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos is best known for starting Amazon. He also owns the Washington Post. Can he start a third career as the proprietor of a rocket company?

Bezos's Blue Origin, which fancies itself as a competitor to SpaceX and a potential space tourism company, had its first ever experimental test flight yesterday, successfully launching its brand new spaceship New Shepherd to a height of 307,000 feet, or about 58 miles above the Earth's surface.

That wasn't quite far enough to get it into what's technically considered space (about 62 miles above the Earth's surface), but a true flight into space wasn't the original plan for this flight, anyway.

The successful launch of New Shepherd is a pretty big deal. Who knows if Blue Origin will actually ever fly anyone into space, and who knows if it'll ever actually launch any satellites of import. The company might end up being a huge success anyway, for two reasons: Blue Origin designs and produces its rocket engines in the United States, not Russia; and Blue Origin is not SpaceX.

Congress has forbidden American military contractors such as the Boeing-Lockheed Martin cooperative United Launch Alliance (which, at the moment, has a monopoly on launching military satellites) from purchasing additional Russian-made RD-180 engines, which are currently used by ULA in all of its rockets. ULA is also competing against SpaceX for future military contracts, meaning ULA isn't about to go to Elon Musk's company for its rocket engine needs.

"Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space"

For those reasons, ULA announced earlier this month that its brand new Vulcan rocket, set to launch in 2019, would be using Blue Origin engines. That means Bezos's company is probably going to be sticking around for quite a while, especially if it can get launches like Wednesday's right.

Bezos doesn't only see the company as one that sells parts to larger conglomerates, however. Blue Origin is designing its own rockets and vehicles, with hopes of becoming a full service space company.

"The in-space separation of the crew capsule from the propulsion module was perfect," Bezos wrote in a blog post. "Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return."

Like Musk, Bezos is hoping that, eventually, the company will be able to recover and reuse its rockets. On Wednesday, he was unable to even recover the capsule—a problem with the hydraulic system means that the space capsule touched down a little bit harder than it should have, destroying it.

"Of course one of our goals is reusability, and unfortunately we didn't get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent," he wrote. "Fortunately, we've already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system. Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway–we'll be ready to fly again soon."

To add a bit of extra intrigue, Musk and Bezos are currently embroiled in a legal battle. Bezos and Blue Origin have attempted to patent some of SpaceX's rocket recovery protocols. SpaceX, famously, has not patented any of its technology, fearing that international competitors in China would steal the technology if it actually published anything. SpaceX has alleged that Blue Origin is trying to patent old technology that it already uses.

So. Musk vs Bezos, who ya got?