In the past week we’ve had some intriguing information and photos about Blue Origin’s shadowy advanced projects division, and their plan for a reusable New Glenn upper stage. Eric Berger’s scoop has caused both celebration (finally, they’re making something other than infographics!) and derision (come back when you’ve hopped the damn tank). But Project Jarvis is more than either – it’s a litmus test for the future of the rest of the launch industry.
After a rocky first half of the year, Blue Origin has emerged with perhaps a single saving grace. Something that stands out from the collapsing engineer morale, the outright embarrassing infographic war and failure to deliver any flight hardware on time. Last Tuesday, a stainless steel test tank was rolled to a test stand on Launch Complex 36. It is the first visible sign of testing for Project Jarvis – an internal skunkworks project to develop a fully reusable upper stage for the upcoming New Glenn heavy lift rocket. The resemblance to the early Starship test tanks is impossible to miss.
Much of the commentary I’ve seen surrounding Jarvis has focused on what it means for Blue Origin’s corporate culture. From the very little we’ve heard, Jarvis is being run out of the Advanced Development Programs division which is almost entirely separate from the rest of the company. In particular, separate from the litigious and hardware-lean management style of Bob Smith and the other “old space” team parachuted in to run the company. There’s been a lot of speculation from Blue fans that the ADP is run almost directly by Bezos, and that he intends it to repopulate the management structure with engineers drawn from it. For those who’ve been despairing at the lack of progress it’s a welcome sight.
However, there are detractors, most of them from the pro-SpaceX camp. They argue that Jarvis intends to do little more than rip off Starship and follow directly behind it. This is compounded by the assumption that Jarvis is drawing engineers away from the rest of Blue where they are sorely needed. After all, we are still wildly behind schedule for both the BE-4 engines and the New Glenn rocket itself. There’s a serious risk that the Jarvis tanks will be ready before they have either engines or a first stage to fly on. There’s also the fear that Bezos is currently scrambling to be seen to be catching up with SpaceX rather than advancing more practical projects. “Concept-rich engineering” may be fun but it’s not a way to run a serious space company.
These views are both fully valid. I want Blue to succeed – their core vision of orbital industry is awesome, they have all the money in the world to throw at the problems and a whole load of highly skilled engineers trying to solve them. At the same time, their track record of delivering projects on time is abysmal, and the recent actions of the management team are unforgivable. Jarvis is certainly a role of the dice for Blue. But it also has a broader implication.
As I see it, Jarvis is the first time a large launch company has acknowledged the implications of Starship. That somewhat unfairly excludes Relativity Space and their Terran R vehicle, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say they exist in a somewhat different sphere. Over the past 5 years, basically every launch provider has made efforts towards a reusable first stage – from ESA’s Themis vehicle to a number of Chinese firms to New Glenn. All of them arrived after Falcon 9 reached full operations and so all are unlikely to make a significant splash. Jarvis is (attempting to) jump the starting pistol in the race to compete in the world of Starship and full reusability. Depending on how it progresses, we will find out two things.
If Jarvis works, it means SpaceX’s technological lead is not unassailable
This is doubly the case given Jarvis’ position as the New Glenn upper stage. Unlike Rocketlab’s Neutron and Relativity’s Terran-R, it is effectively retrofitting full reusability onto a partially reusable rocket. The huge unknown all the way through about Starship has effectively been “how hard is this design, if you don’t have mad goals about Mars”. It’s possible that the head start on Raptors, the TPS, the re-entry characteristics is genuinely 5-10 years – in which case it’s unlikely that anyone will be able to seriously compete with Starship. On the other hand, it’s extremely possible that the challenges of Starship largely stem from Musk’s insane demand for production volume and launch cadence. If New Glenn/Jarvis intends to launch with a one week turnaround rather than 1 hour, perhaps many of the roadblocks can be removed. Regardless, simply by virtue of being the fastest follower, Blue Origin will be the ones who determine the size of the lead they must close.
If Jarvis is financially viable compared to Starship, it means that other providers can survive
The eventual price of launch on Starship is unknown. Musk wants tens of dollars per kilogram, which is patently crazy – I believe those numbers are based on airline operating numbers and an orbital launch system is enormously more complicated than a fleet of planes. But even before these unknowns we can say with some certainty that Starship is going to be cheap as chips. It’s probably competitive with Falcon 9 with a disposable upper stage and even 5 reuses of the orbital vehicle will drop costs further.
If New Glenn/Jarvis can be price-comparable with Starship it will survive. It doesn’t necessarily have to be cheaper – there’s certainly room in the market for a non-SpaceX cheap launch, not least from competitors like Project Kuiper. It just has to be in the same ballpark. But if Starship’s operational model of enormous volume, subsidised by Starlink and Mars launches, turns out to be substantially cheaper than Jarvis, then the rest of the market is screwed. The only possible competition will either be more advanced than Starship or a direct ripoff. That leaves very little for the current players to do and very little income to do it with.
This is why I’m so interested in the outcome of Jarvis. It’s more than the last gasp of a doomed company, or the beginning of a rebirth. It’s a peek into the entire future of the launch industry, a litmus test for how it’ll handle one company trying to work 50 years ahead of market trends. If Jarvis succeeds we will doubtless see copycats and imitators but at least they’ll be genuinely competing for market share with SpaceX. If it fails, it could be the harbinger of doom for many other companies big and small. Only time and launch will tell, and I have no doubt that the managers behind Jarvis appreciate the importance of their task. At least, I hope they do – the window for their survival is closing fast.