Blue Origin VS Virgin Galactic // How do they compare?
Hi, it's me Tim Dodd the everyday astronaut. The time has arrived. We're at the start of a new era of human spaceflight, commercial suborbital rides to the edge of space. And what's crazy is there, isn't just one company doing this, but two companies are entering service at almost the exact same time.
Of course, we're talking about Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and their SpaceShipTwo space plane and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin with their New Shepard vehicle. And what's exciting is that each of these guys decided to ride on the very first crewed flights of their company's rockets. Both of these systems are capable of giving customers an incredible once in a lifetime experience, taking them to the edge of space and back providing them with approximately four minutes of weightlessness and a view less than 600 humans have ever seen well for now. So today let's do a little overview of what exactly suborbital spaceflight is, what you could expect on one of these rides, and then go over each system, comparing them side by side for the ultimate rundown. So here's the timestamps for each section.
We also have links in the description. The YouTube play bar is broken up into these sections and we have an article version of this video up at everydayastronaut.com. Okay, let's get started. Sub orbital commercial spaceflight. Now you might be familiar with the first operational commercial spaceflight from the United States in 2020, when SpaceX took Bob Behken and Doug Hurley up to the International Space Station for NASA on their Crew Dragon spacecraft, riding a Falcon 9 rocket. Well, that was an orbital mission called DM2 or Demonstration Mission 2. And that's a completely different task than what Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are doing for now.
An orbital mission requires a huge rocket, and once it gets its payload into orbit, that payload is not going to come back down until it de-orbits, which could be months and months or years. Suborbital spaceflight doesn't reach orbit. They're just exactly that sub orbital less than orbit, but these rockets aren't trying to get to orbit they're purpose-built space tourism machines. So if you're poking fun of these rockets for not reaching orbit, that'd be like poking fun of a Honda civic for not being able to pull as much as a semi-truck. It's not designed to do that.
So by poking fun of a civic's toying capacity, it really speaks to more about your lack of knowledge than it does the civics lack of a towing capacity. But the important thing here is these rides do go to space. I mean, after all to go to space, you just go up until there's virtually no atmosphere, and it's not like the atmosphere just suddenly stops, it just slowly fades away until you've hit an altitude where there's just pretty much no atmosphere. Like when you drive a car up a tall mountain, it's not like, oh, all of a sudden the air is thin. It just gets thinner and thinner, the higher and higher up you go, keep going with that idea.
And you reach a point where there's just virtually zero atmosphere and that my friends is space. So space is really just a lack of atmosphere, but it's not a lack of gravity similar to air. It's not like you get up to space and gravity is just suddenly turned off and you just stay floating there. As a matter of fact, when you are at 100 kilometers in altitude, you're still being pulled by earth with nearly the same amount of force as you would be at sea level. Specifically,
gravity still pulls you at 9.4 meters per second, squared of acceleration, as opposed to the 9.8 meters per second squared here at sea level. But you'll actually start experiencing weightlessness. The moment the engine shuts down, which is only about halfway up your climb to space. That's right,
even though you're still going up, you and the spacecraft are both no longer accelerating you're coasting up experiencing zero G or weightlessness, kind of like the peaks of a roller coaster where you feel like you're leaving your seat for a little bit. That's a brief moment of weightlessness. This is basically that, but you'll experience it for a long time, all the way from engine shutoff up through your peak altitude or Apogee. And even as you fall, until you finally begin to experience deceleration from atmospheric drag, the fact that your spacecraft is slowing down is what will push you back into your seat. Now we should point out these vehicles are just basically going straight up at Apogee. They have virtually zero horizontal velocity.
They're more or less completely stationary for a brief moment in time. If they were to try to stay in space by getting into orbit, they would need to be traveling at orbital velocities. So roughly 28,000 kilometers an hour sideways, that's about eight times faster than their peak velocities during ascent.
If you want a quick run down on orbit versus sub orbit, check this video out. The Karman line is a common definition of the edge of space and is defined as 100 kilometers. Although most would argue that 80 kilometers is just as much in space as 100 kilometers. So there are actually some considerations to changing all international definitions of spaces, altitude to 80 kilometers. That being said until that number changes, only one of these two rockets will actually get you above the Karman line or 100 kilometers. Which one is it? Well for that,
let's dive into each system. First up. Let's talk about Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic is a suborbital tourism launch company. Now don't confuse this with Virgin Orbit, who is a small sat rocket company who launches their LauncherOne rocket from a Boeing 7 47. Now at one point they both were part of Virgin Galactic, but now they're separate entities. Virgin Galactic currently has one system composed of SpaceShipTwo and its carrier plain WhiteKnightTwo just to mitigate some confusion. Here,
there is also a newer production ready version called SpaceShip III. It's virtually the same thing as two, and it hasn't flown as of the making of this video. So from here on out, I'm just going to refer to the vehicle as SpaceShipTwo. SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo are scaled up versions of the original SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightOne.
And now those were built by Scaled Composites and won the 2004 Ansari, X prize of $10 million by successfully flying to space and back twice in just five days. But it was just after their first powered flight to space that Virgin Galactic announced they'd licensed the technology and sponsor SpaceShipOne, and then they would start building their own bigger versions for space tourism. So Virgin Galactic, co-founded the Spaceship Company in 2005 at a 70% ownership with Scaled Composites owning 30%.
The spaceship company's goal was to scale up the spaceship one and its carrier plane to maximize their commercial spaceflight potential. In 2008, the company would roll out their new WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane, which was about three times larger than the original WhiteKnight. It features a full twin fuselage with four jet engines.
What's cool about this is one of the fuselage is actually a replica of SpaceShipTwo's interior. So they can train passengers at a very reasonable cost. And the other fuselage can be used for cheaper trips to 18 kilometers, almost double that of a standard airliner, which is high enough to be able to see the dark blue sky, the first SpaceShipTwo or technically the first Scaled Composites model 339 SpaceShipTwo was revealed on December 7th, 2009. And it was named VSS enterprise. It sported a much larger design capable of two pilots and six passengers, but it shares many similarities with the first spaceship vehicle on ascent. It features an upgraded version of their unique hybrid rocket engine.
The engine uses HTPB rubber based solid rocket fuel, but unlike a traditional solid rocket booster, it can be shut down mid flight. This is where the hybrid comes from. The solid rocket propellant will only remain firing when liquid or gaseous nitrous oxide are present in the motor. So the pilots can light the engine with an igniter and then nitrous flows from an oxidizer tank into the solid propellant. As long as the nitrous is flowing,
the rocket will continue to run, but shutting off the supply will shut the engine down. That's super cool. Despite being able to turn the engine on and off, it cannot actively throttle. It is a fixed thrust output for a bit of time at Virgin Galactic played around with a different solid fuel called thermoplastic polymer with nitrous and a little methane for combustion and helium for shutdown but they would switch back to HTPB following the first and only flight with that new engine, which unfortunately wound up with the loss of the vehicle and the tragic loss of one of the two test pilots. But the breakup of the spaceplane had nothing to do with this new engine.
The breakup actually had to do with a staple of its design, the feathered re-entry system. This happened when one of the test pilots accidentally prematurely unlocked the feathering system resulting in the vehicle, breaking up at supersonic speeds while still under powered flight. Now, obviously they fixed that and made it so it's impossible for that system to prematurely activate, but overall, the shape of the space plane is super unique and has stayed basically the same and features those pneumatically tilted tails and horizontal stabilizers.
The twin tails of the rocket plane have what they call a carefree re-entry profile, which takes inspiration from a badminton shuttlecock. This is a passively stable design that provides a large amount of drag and makes the vehicle want to reenter belly down each time. Even if it, for some reason, began to reenter upside down.
Once the vehicle is subsonic and then the lower portions of the atmosphere, it straightens its wings back out and glides back to the runway for a fairly standard landing. Or you might notice it's missing a front wheel and instead it uses a simple skid that acts like a brake pad on touchdown. It's really interesting about this vehicle is that humans are 100% in control. I think it's super impressive that these are fully flown by skilled pilots. That's right. There is no autopilot. There's not even fly by wire. The pair of pilots control the vehicle directly through either electronically controlled trim at supersonic speeds or cables and rod linkages at subsonic speeds.
It's kind of crazy to me that such a beautiful 21st century spacecraft also so old school. I actually kind of love that in space. They have some cold guests thrusters to control orientation outside the atmosphere. Cold gas thrusters are just compressed air and are very simple and effective. They can control each axis of the vehicle. So pitch yaw and roll. And there's a pair of each thruster for redundancy. One of the coolest things about this vehicle is Virgin Galactic's attention to detail for the passengers. They've done an amazing job,
making sure the customer experience is top notch, like by using 16 cameras on board. So you don't have to fiddle with your own camera, which can help you live in the moment. These beautiful back displays to help you stay up to date with every portion of the flight, the seats are also dynamic and set their angle to maximize comfort and safety at all different portions of flight. And the 17 windows all have a halo edge,
so you can easily grab onto them to maximize your viewing experience. Something that I think is extremely important. In 2016, Virgin Galactic built their second SpaceShipTwo called VSS unity, which flew three times to space before being ready for passengers. And that's what's flying currently. And on March 30th, 2021, Virgin Galactic showed off their first spaceship three called VSS.
Imagine. So that's the rundown on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo at the end, we'll compare its exact specs to Blue Origin's New Shepard, but first let's do a rundown on that vehicle too. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin has been around for a very long time. In fact was founded before SpaceX way back in 2000.
Blue Origin's philosophy is gradatim ferociter, Latin for step-by-step ferociously and their slow and patient approach to spaceflight development certainly shows that before New Shepherd saw the light of day Blue Origin was demonstrating many technologies with a rocket powered vehicle named Goddard in 2006, after Goddard Blue Origin began developing the New Shepard system, which is a space capsule and a booster New Shepard is named after Alan Shepard, the first American in space who performed a suborbital flight. Their next rocket New Glenn is named after John Glenn, who was the first American to go on an orbital flight. So as the name suggests that rocket will be orbital, but back to new shepherd, the capsule was tested at the end of 2012 with a pad escape test of their launch abort system demonstrating their pusher, solid rocket motor abort system, and the ability to fully deploy the parachutes for a soft landing at a low altitude. You may have noticed what looks like a large center console in the middle of the spacecraft. Well, that's not just a table or something.
That's actually a solid rocket motor capable of pushing the capsule away from a failed booster in a hurry, aiding in the safety considerations of the vehicle. In 2015 Blue Origin announced they had completed acceptance testing of their BE3 engine. That would be at the heart of the New Shepard booster. The BE3 is a combustion tap off cycle hydrolox powered engine.
The tap off cycle is pretty unique. It's where you basically just punch a hole in your combustion chamber and let some of the internal pressure of the main combustion chamber spin the turbine to power your pumps. It's definitely a bit of a head-scratcher when it comes to, how does it run? I mean like how do you even start an engine that has the combustion chamber running the pumps and the pumps are running the engine and then the engines running the pumps. I mean, yeah, well, we'll save that for another video. What I like about the BE3 is that they've kind of split it out inefficiently on the base of the New Shepard. So although the packaging isn't tight and it's probably not very mass efficient, it is much easier to access all of the parts and potentially tweak or repair when necessary.
This allows them to quickly refurbish and then learn the engine quite literally inside and out. Meanwhile, they can help use this knowledge to shape their BE3U vacuum optimized, open expander cycle version, and that's going to be used on their new Glenn orbital rocket in the future. The BE3 powers the rocket from their west Texas launch site at about 1200 meters above sea level, all the way up to about 50 kilometers or so when the vehicle hits main engine cutoff, and then it's going to coast up the rest of the way to space.
80 seconds before Apogee the vehicle stages into its two separate components, the booster and the capsule, the capsule will reenter and fall back down slower than the booster, which is skinnier with less surface area. And here's where the booster does something. I think that we all just simply love to see on the way down it deploys fins to help steer it.
Then it deploys some air brakes to help scrub off velocity. Then when only about three kilometers above the ground, it lights up it's BE3 engine to propulsively land. One impressive thing about their engine is it can actually throttle down below 20% of maximum thrust, which can allow the rocket to hover and then perfectly redirect itself over its targeted landing area. For reference SpaceX's Merlin engine on their Falcon 9 and Heavy can throttle down to about 40%, which is also why the Falcon 9 can't actually hover and has to do a fairly aggressive hover slam maneuver. But a fun little fact here, Blue Origins, New Shepard actually became the first rocket to reach space and then propulsively land. They did this about one month before SpaceX landed their first Falcon 9 booster.
Now of course, one of these rockets is orbital reaching a peak velocity of about 3,500 kilometers an hour while traveling mostly straight up with virtually no horizontal velocity at all. And the other rocket Falcon 9 is an orbital rocket booster traveling at up to 8,000 pounds kilometers an hour sideways, well carrying a large upper stage about the size of the entire New Shepherd vehicle, but let's give credit where credit is due 100% here because this is no easy feat and it's still easily one of the coolest things a rocket can do, period. You may also notice that the booster has a ring that the capsule sits on top of. I love this design because not only does it serve a purpose for aerodynamic stability during re-entry, but it also has reliefs for the abort motor. This means if they had to light the abort motor while attached to the there's a place for that hot gas to go lessening the chance of the solid rocket motor exploding, the booster below it. As a matter of fact, they did exactly that for an in-flight abort test when they lit that abort motor, while it was still on top of the booster and miraculously quite literally, I think to everyone's surprise, not only did the booster survive, it actually still came back and landed softly, which was absolutely incredible. Okay.
Now back to the capsule that of course has the passengers on board. So the booster pushes it up towards space and lets go of the capsule shortly after it shuts its engines down, then both the booster and the capsule will coast up to peak altitude or Apogee, and then they both will begin to fall back down. The capsule will return slower than the booster though. Thanks to its larger surface area and blunt body design. Since it has humans onboard, it uses a tried and true system parachutes. At about two kilometers.
It deploys three drogue chutes followed by three main chutes at just about one kilometer in altitude. Now, despite the capsule coming down super, super slow, it only about 25 kilometers an hour. They make the touchdown even softer by firing some retro thrusters at the very last moment to create a nice cushion of air. You might notice a bunch of dust getting kicked up right as it lands.
That's not coming down hard, that's it coming down so soft and just gliding on a nice little cushion of air. It's similar to what the Soyuz capsule does when it's touching down too it helps absorb energy before hitting the ground. And what's crazy is the New Shepard could actually lose two of its three main parachutes and still land slowly enough to be able to be survivable.
And that's also thanks to shock absorbing seats, unlike SpaceShipTwo. In fact, completely opposite of SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard is 100% autonomous. This means all 6 seats on board can be filled with passengers and there is no need for any of those seats to be taken up by pilots. And each of the six passengers are treated to massive windows.
In fact, they are the largest windows to ever fly to space, which would definitely be important when the entire purpose of this flight is to see some incredible views that you've never seen before. New shepherd successfully flew 15 times before putting humans on board. They lost their first booster on their first attempt in early 2015, but safely recovered their capsule. Then the second booster would fly five times before being retired.
The third booster and second capsule flew seven times successively before being retired and then the fourth booster and the third capsule flew twice before being ready to be the first to fly humans now. Okay. I think that about does it for new shepherd. Now let's put these two vehicles up side by side and compare their exact specs. [Inaudible]. Okay. Let's get these two vehicles up side by side so we can get a sense of just how big they actually are.
SpaceShipTwo is 18 meters long with an 8.2 meter wingspan and a tail height of 4.6 meters. It's about as long as New Shepard is tall, which is 19 meters tall and about 3.8 meters wide. And just for fun, let's throw in a Falcon 9 for scale too, which helps give you a sense of perspective. Falcon 9 towers over these vehicles with its 70 meter height next their engines, which we're showing their propellant and cycle types along with their thrust and efficiency measured in seconds of specific impulse, Blue Origin's BE3 definitely has an impressive thrust and specific impulse.
The burn time of these engines is quite different due to the fact that New Shepard launches on the ground and SpaceShipTwo launches mid air because of this new Shepherd's BE3 runs for aboruaut two minutes and 20 seconds or so compared to just about one minute for SpaceShipTwo, I should probably point out here that the hydrolox running New Shepard is very clean burning and has very very little environmental impacts since its by-product is just water vapor. But that same thing can't really be said for SpaceshipTwo's solid rocket propellant, which is pretty nasty, especially for the ozone layer. Now that said it's really comparable per passenger to a transatlantic flight.
If you need a deep rundown on what exactly comes out of rockets and what impact they have on our environment, definitely watch this video. It's a super, super deep dive on that topic. As we mentioned, SpaceShipTwo can carry eight people, two pilots and six passengers and New Shepard can carry six passengers. Next total flight time from takeoff to landing New Shepard is a much shorter ride. Only about 10 minutes from takeoff to landing. Whereas SpaceShipTwo's usual flight time is about two hours from wheels up to touchdown.
But a lot of that time is either the long slow climb up while being attached to WhiteKnightTwo, or the slow glide back down, both vehicles still end up spending roughly the same amount of time experiencing zero G of around four minutes. But one notable difference between the two vehicles is their maximum altitude. The highest VSS unity has ever flown is just shy of 90 kilometers, which does mean it has never crossed the Karman line, although it's frankly arbitrary and doesn't really change anything as far as your experience goes, it is worth noting.
A New Shepherd on the other hand does cross the Karman line and has an Apogee of about 105 kilometers. Another fun and really important to note about these systems is that they are both fully reusable. I think this is vital in bringing the costs down. I can't imagine the cost if they were throwing away hardware each and every launch, which brings us to the price. Now this isn't something that's actually really that well published yet.
We do know most people who have paid for rides on SpaceShipTwo have paid $250,000, but unfortunately we don't really know what's the price of a ride on new shepherd. There's really been only one example of price so far, and it's a customer who bid $28 million to fly on the first flight alongside Jeff Bezos, his brother mark and aviation legend, Wally funk. But I think it's safe to assume the standard price will be much closer to that $250,000 mark, similar to SpaceShipTwo. Although some sources have reported, it might actually be significantly higher, but I guess we'll just have to wait and see, but that about does it for the rundown of these two awesome suborbital vehicles. All right. I think it's time for a summary. I just love.
That we're at a time when there's two wildly different solutions for suborbital spaceflight tourism, and they're going online at almost the exact same time. Both systems are honestly beautiful in their own way. I love the safety redundancy and simplicity of Blue Origins, traditional capsule based New Shepard, but at the same time, I love the elegant and beautiful solution with air launching and feathered re-entry like Virgin Galactic spaceship. As far as which one would I rather ride on though? That's really hard to answer. Sincerely. I think before Virgin Galactic showed off their interior, I, I really wasn't that interested, but once I saw that gorgeous interior, those awesome seats, the attention to detail on the lightings and cameras and just the whole thing, I really could finally picture myself riding on it.
I also liked the idea of it being a longer flight after all, even the ride wall is still attached to WhiteKnight. Two would be pretty amazing and the slow glide back down from space seems pretty fun as well. You might as well soak up as much time as possible in that seat since you paid for it. I also really liked how the spaceship oriented itself to look back down on earth so you can look straight down. I think that's really cool, but I'm blown away and honestly, half annoyed at how cautiously Blue Origin has developed New Shepard. I mean, it's obviously for the better and I'd have a lot of confidence riding on a vehicle that has had such us absolute stringent testing regime with 15 successful uncrewed flights. Not to mention,
I love the fact that New Shepard has a lot of redundancy and a full envelope launch abort system. And I love those massive, massive windows on New Shepard, but at the end of the day, I think both systems seem to offer just an amazing ride. And they've both focused on the customer getting a really incredible experience and I'd probably hop on the opportunity to ride on either system in a heartbeat. And I can only hope that in the future, we might all get to experience something as incredible as these rides. I mean, imagine if the price came down enough that it'd be similar to like skydiving or some other really fun experience. You just go take a quick little ride to space.
Wouldn't that be incredible. So what do you think when you ride on either of these vehicles, both of them, neither of them do you think we'll see long-term commercial success and this is just the start of a new era of commercial spaceflight, or do you think this is not going to last, let me know your thoughts and questions in the comments below. I owe a huge thank you to my patreon supporters for making this video and everything else that we do here at Everyday Astronaut possible. You can show your support and also gain access to some fun perks, like becoming part of our incredible discord community or getting access to exclusive live streams.
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