We watched Jeff Bezos blast off into space Tuesday morning aboard his Blue Origin space capsule. The flight was a success and according to some experts, he achieved true penetration into space, where Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic flight a week earlier was a few miles shy of that threshold.
But comparing the two makes me think that Branson had the better product.
For beginners, I think Branson’s program and vision holds a lot more promise in terms of being able to launch a reliable reusable vehicle into space that can eventually carry a bigger payload. Bezos’ service rocket was impressive in its ability to land back on the launch pad where it blasted off, but the capsule landing left much to be desired. Having flown hot air balloons and knowing how much can change instantly with capricious surface winds, there was no guarantee where the capsule might have plunked down to earth. It could have drifted a few miles away from the open flat area where it landed and ended up on the side of a mountain or in a deep arroyo. It could have even tipped over on landing if a large boulder shared the same piece of ground.
Then there was the celebration afterwards. Branson’s landing right back where he started allowed a full-fledged celebration to take place, complete with large video screen set up next to the futuristic New Mexico SpacePort building east of Truth or Consequences. There were paved roads leading there. There were facilities for the media. There was room for large crowds. Bezos’ craft just landed in a big dirt patch of non-descript desert, and it took a while for anyone to get to him and his crew. When the crew did show up, it looks like many of the guests made a silly effort to look like real West Texas cowboys and cowgirls, complete with overly floppy straw western hats and jeans stuck inside garish boots.
The state of New Mexico did a much better job promoting itself during the Branson launch than did Texas. Again, the only nod to Texas were the fake cowgirls and cowboys.
And then there’s the spacecraft. In the first place, Bezos rocket and capsule had an almost obscene look to it, with a bulbous protrustion on top of a more slender booster rocket. And it was scorched from previous flights and appeared to be worn and not as safe. It looked like it was lifting off from a oil rig in the middle of the desolate Permian Basin.
Branson’s futuristic lifter and sleek spacecraft were the clear winner. With its brilliant white amd blue finish tapering to a chrome-like tail section, it just plain looked cool.
But in my mind, the best thing about the spacecraft was the New Mexico Zia symbol painted on the tail. Well done, New Mexico. Well done, Virgin Galactic.