Since private companies entered the arena of space travel after the space shuttle program was retired, two names have emerged as stewards of the new age of venturing into space. Blue Origin, led by Jeff Bezos, and SpaceX, with Elon Musk at the helm, are leading the way with their New Shepard and Falcon 9 rocket technologies, albeit in different ways.
Blue Origin’s New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that has been engineered with the primary purpose of transporting paying passengers past the Kármán Line, the so-called boundary of space. SpaceX’s Falcon 9, however, is an orbital rocket that can transport humans and payloads into outer space.
New Shepard and Falcon 9 are proving with each successful flight that their respective rocket platforms can satisfy space travel requirements for the here and now, perhaps more importantly, they are also providing promising glimpses of what lies ahead. Read on for a comparison of New Shepard and Falcon 9 and gain insight into the niches they are carving for themselves in the realm of space.
New Shepard vs Falcon 9 – A Comparison
The New Shepard and Falcon 9 rockets are purpose-built spacecraft technologies that represent the latest in scientific achievements and innovative thinking. The famous founders of Blue Origin and SpaceX make frequent headlines, including for their roles in the so-called billionaire space race, but these two rockets serve different purposes and the companies have stated differing missions. At least for now.
Here is a look at how New Shepard and Falcon 9 compare, starting with their capabilities and primary purposes.
Purposes and Capabilities
Blue Origin has touted its New Shepard spacecraft as a reusable rocket technology (it actually landed a booster rocket after space flight before SpaceX did) that will transport fare-paying passengers past the Kármán Line, a distinction which NASA deems worthy of earning astronaut wings. In other words, New Shepard is the ultimate vehicle for space tourism and offers these features:
- Full autonomy, meaning that no pilots are needed, and everyone on board will be a passenger
- Each seat has its own panoramic window to take in once-in-a-lifetime views including the earth’s curvature below
- For a portion of the 11-minute flight, passengers can experience zero gravity and float weightlessly about the cabin like true astronauts
- The spacious cabin of New Shepard’s space capsule can accommodate six passengers
- Recognizing the all-too-important passenger safety aspect of space tourism the New Shepard’s testing programs have emphasized redundant evaluations of the vehicle’s safety measures including repeated validations of the capsule’s built-in escape technology
In contrast to the space tourism theme promoted by Blue Origin for its New Shepard rocket, SpaceX has taken a decidedly no-nonsense, business-oriented approach toward its Falcon 9 rocket program and with very good reason.
Since its first test launch on June 4, 2010, the Falcon 9 rocket has not only proven to proponents and skeptics alike that SpaceX’s reusable rocket concept was a sustainable model for space travel and exploration, it firmly established itself as a cosmic workhorse like no other. These are just a few of its notable achievements:
- The Falcon 9 is an orbital rocket meaning that it can travel fast enough to attain orbital speed and thus perform complex jobs like transporting humans and delivering payloads to the International Space Station (ISS)
- There have been 128 successful launches of Falcon 9 rockets thus far
- In partnership with NASA, Falcon 9 rockets have transported 18 people to outer space since 2020, including civilians (non-astronauts)
- Aside from human payloads, Falcon 9 rockets have been used to launch satellites into orbit for parties that include foreign governments
- SpaceX has used its fleet of Falcon 9 rockets to launch its own Starlink satellites (over 1,800 and counting) with the aim of providing affordable internet service to people in rural and underserved areas
In a head-to-head comparison, it becomes clear that the New Shepard and Falcon 9 rockets were designed with different objectives in mind. The former would never be tasked with delivering payloads or astronauts to the ISS because it lacks the propulsion to escape the earth’s gravitational pull. On the other hand, voyages to outer space have become somewhat routine for the Falcon 9 rockets.
But by the same token, a space tourist willing to pay the going rate would hardly be expected to pass up the opportunity to book a seat on the New Shepard space capsule and earn those astronaut wings.
The Tale of the Tape
The glaring differences in their appearances are the clearest indication that Blue Origin’s New Shepard and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 are rockets that have been designed and engineered to perform different functions. Here are some key specifications:
|SPECIFICATION||NEW SHEPARD||FALCON 9|
|Rocket Height||60 feet (18 meters)||230 feet (70 meters)|
|Number of Stages||1||2|
|Engines||1 BE-3 Engine||1st Stage: 9 Merlin Engines 2nd Stage: 1 Vacuum Engine|
|Passengers||6 Maximum||7 Maximum|
|Payload Capacity||Options Vary||Payload Fairing Dimensions: 43 feet (13.1 meters) Height 17.1 feet (5.2 meters) Diam.|
|Named After||NASA Mercury Program Astronaut Alan Shepard||The Millennium Falcon from the movie Star Wars|
It is worth noting that the continued development of these rocket technologies by engineers at Blue Origin and SpaceX will lead to enhanced performance attributes in future versions of these spacecraft.
A mere decade ago or so, the thought of pilot-less rockets, civilian space travelers, and rocket boosters that could not only return to earth in one piece but actually be used again on subsequent missions, all seemed to be the stuff of science fiction. These incredible achievements not only represent the current state of space travel they could very well be just the beginning of a new era in space technology.