Space billionaires Bezos and Musk in twitter spat

November 26, 2015, 5:40am

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos laughs during an interview in Cupertino. Ben Margot, NAMPA/AP, file

By Julie Johnsson and Dana Hull, Bloomberg News on Fin24

Chicago - Jeff Bezos achieved two technological milestones in barely 24 hours.

His Blue Origin LLC sent a rocket to the edge of space and landed it safely back on Earth, a pioneering feat. Then the 51- year-old founder hailed the event with his first-ever tweet on Tuesday, dubbing the lightly scorched booster the “rarest of beasts, a used rocket”.

His Twitter debut quickly landed him in an online spat with another billionaire with space ambitions: Elon Musk, whose Space Exploration Technologies Corporation wants to bring back Falcon 9 rockets to upright touchdowns after hoisting commercial payloads to orbit.

“Not quite ‘rarest’, ” Musk replied via Twitter, citing SpaceX’s completion of six suborbital flights by its experimental Grasshopper rocket three years ago. “Jeff maybe unaware SpaceX suborbital VTOL flight began 2013,” Musk wrote, using the acronym for vertical take-off and landing.

The sniping highlights the stakes as space entrepreneurs create reusable rockets to cut the cost of lofting freight and astronauts. While Musk’s systems are more mature - SpaceX is now preparing to hoist military payloads, and Bezos’s venture is still running tests - the latest flight helped establish Blue Origin as a SpaceX competitor.

Gently swaying

Blue Origin’s craft took off Monday from the company’s west Texas launch site, reached an altitude of 329 839 feet (100km), deployed a capsule and then landed vertically atop a pillar of flame from its engine. A Blue Origin video showed the rocket swaying gently from side to side as its four legs flexed in preparation for touchdown amid a swirl of billowing dust.

“This is a major breakthrough for the commercialisation of space,” said Richard M Rocket, chief executive officer and co- founder of market researcher NewSpace Global in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “We used to refer to Blue Origin as Black Origin, because historically they haven’t released much information about the company. But this proves that a privately funded company can send a rocket to space and back in one piece, and this is a critical part of lowering launch costs and opening up space access.”

Musk, 44, initially offered kudos to Blue Origin and Bezos in a tweet, writing, “Congrats to Jeff Bezos and the BO team for achieving” vertical takeoff and landing.

Then, in a subsequent message, Musk said: “It is however, important to clear up the difference between ‘space’ and ‘orbit’ ” to highlight the current technology gap between the space ventures.

Blue Origin spokesperson Jessica Pieczonka responded by email: “SpaceX is only trying to recover their first stage booster, which of course is suborbital.”

Joining in

Marc Andreessen, a Silicon Valley investor and entrepreneur, joined in on the Twitter banter on Tuesday, though without taking sides.

“Area man joins Twitter. To show off his rocket. @JeffBezos,” Andreessen wrote.

For decades, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration recovered capsules by parachute, as Blue Origin did with the one atop its New Shepard vehicle, but typically treated the boosters as expendable. SpaceX has led the movement to reuse engines and frames from its 14-story-tall boosters. Doing so would create big savings, reducing launch costs by as much as a factor of 100, Musk has said.

SpaceX has come close, crash-landing its rocket stages onto a barge floating in the Atlantic Ocean twice this year after sending payloads into orbit. The launch vehicles have been grounded since a June accident, but SpaceX expects to resume commercial missions over the next month, and with them recapture attempts.

“For the first time, Musk must be feeling there is really someone who can give me a run for my money,” said Marco Caceres, director of space studies with consultant Teal Group.

“Bezos has always had plans to develop an orbital vehicle. If he does that and can perfect his technology, he’s going to be right in the game with Elon Musk.”