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Bezos and Belmer
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon as well as the Blue Origin space venture, takes the stage with Eutelsat CEO Rodolphe Belmer. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos revealed satellite operator Eutelsat as the first paying customer for his Blue Origin space venture’s New Glenn orbital rocket, and showed off a new animation depicting the rocket taking off, delivering a satellite to orbit and landing on a barge at sea.

Bezos and the chairman of this week’s Satellite 2017 conference, Jeffrey Hill, brought the Paris-based satellite operator’s CEO, Rodolphe Belmer, on stage as a surprise guest during today’s keynote chat.

“We couldn’t hope for a better first partner,” Bezos said.

In a news release, Eutelsat said the first payload would be a geostationary satellite, to be launched in the 2021-2022 time frame. New Glenn’s specifications are compatible with virtually all of Eutelsat’s spacecraft, which gives the company enough flexibility to wait until a year before launch to determine the specific mission.

Eutelsat is one of the world’s biggest satellite operators, providing video and data coverage for Europe, the Middle East, Africa, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region.

“Blue Origin has been forthcoming with Eutelsat on its strategy, and convinced us they have the right mindset to compete in the launch service industry,” Belmer said. Neither company provided financial details.

New Glenn is slated to begin flying by 2020, from Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The video that made its debut today at the Satellite 2017 conference showed the takeoff of a two-stage New Glenn rocket, equipped with aerodynamic fins (technically known as strakes) and six deployable landing legs.

After stage separation, the first-stage booster is designed to fly itself back to an oceangoing platform – a maneuver similar to that used by SpaceX for its Falcon 9 boosters. In fact, Blue Origin and SpaceX were once locked in a legal tussle over the patentability of the procedure. (Blue Origin’s patent ended up being thrown out.)

For Blue Origin as well as SpaceX, the reason for recovering the first stage is to maximize the reusability of spacecraft hardware and drive down the cost of access to space.

During today’s keynote, Bezos stressed the importance of “true operational reusability” in spacecraft, saying the company will not only recover rockets through vertical landings but aim to use them again with minimal work.

“We need to get to a place ultimately that is much more like commercial airliners,” he said.

Today’s announcement came a week after Bezos acknowledged floating a proposal to NASA suggesting that Blue Origin could make payload deliveries to the lunar surface, starting as early as 2020. The aim would be to build a permanent base for humans in the moon’s south polar region.

While Bezos’ work with Amazon has transformed the retail industry, his work with Blue Origin is meant to pursue Bezos’ long-held vision of having millions of people living and working in space.

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, only a few years after founding Amazon in Seattle. Today Bezos said more than 1,000 employees are working at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and at its test range on ranchland that he owns in West Texas. Blue Origin is also building a 750,000-square-foot rocket factory near its launch complex in Florida.

For now, the top projects on Blue Origin’s agenda are the New Shepard suborbital spaceship and the advanced BE-4 rocket engine.

One New Shepard craft has already made five successful uncrewed test flights to space and back from the West Texas launch site. If the development process continues according to plan, an upgraded New Shepard could start carrying test astronauts late this year, and start flying paying passengers next year.

Meanwhile, Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines are expected to go through full-scale testing soon. The BE-4 is slated to be used on United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket as well as Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, whose name pays tribute to the late space pioneer John Glenn.

Bezos has also talked about an even more powerful rocket, the New Armstrong, which is named after moonwalker Neil Armstrong. That rocket, which hasn’t yet gotten off the drawing boards, would take on deep-space missions. However, Bezos said last week that a beefed-up version of the New Glenn would have enough oomph to get payloads to the moon. NASA’s Space Launch System and ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket could also be used.

Bezos is funding Blue Origin from his personal fortune, not Amazon revenue. Last year he acknowledged that he’s put well more than half a billion dollars into the company. His current net worth is estimated at $73 billion, or nearly four times NASA’s annual budget.

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