First to Orbit ? SpaceX Starship, Blue Origin New Glenn or ULA SLS

Which of the major new rockets (SpaceX Starship, Blue Origin New Glenn or United Launch Alliance SLS) will reach orbit first? Below are the current target dates. Obviously I believe SpaceX Starship will get to orbit first.

Blue Origin’s current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022. Blue Origin has had no fuel loading structural tests and has not rolled the New Glenn out of its hanger.

Elon Musk still says he is hopeful that the first orbital Starship flight can be in 2021.

The United Launch Alliance needs everything to go perfectly for a February 2022 first launch of the SLS (Space Launch System). The SLS had a failed Green run hold down test.

SOURCES- Blue Origin, Washington Post, SpaceX, Ars Technica
Written by Brian Wang,

59 thoughts on “First to Orbit ? SpaceX Starship, Blue Origin New Glenn or ULA SLS”

  1. First to launch will be SLS, the first one to fly is already half stacked in the VAB and the core stage will join that stack next month to begin final processing and launch preparations.
    With a bit of luck it could launch 8-9 months from now,especially now that the green run hotfire test was a success.

    Starship still has a lot of work left to reach orbit.
    SpaceX still has yet to build an actual Starship second stage beyond atmospheric prototypes, they have barely begun Super heavy development, let alone construction of an actual Super Heavy flight stage and the orbital launch pad at Boca Chica is still pretty early in its construction and integration phase.
    They are moving fast but it'll likely be a while before they get everything ready to go.

    New Glenn is at the earliest a year and a half away from its first launch and they haven't even begun proper flight hardware construction at this point. It will probably finish last between these 3 rockers

  2. I can assure you there's a lot of hard work going into the SLS.
    Building a Super Heavy lift launch vehicle is not easy by any means, especially one that is human rated.

  3. The 12 month period isn't a hard limit and if needed with proper seal inspection the stack life can be extended without further risk.
    Even if the limit was exceeded though, they would de-stack and restack the boosters after inspecting or replacing the seals, it's not like they become unusable.
    Even then, on the current A1 schedule they are ~3 months ahead of the 12 month limit and all they have left is to finish stacking and preparing the rocket for launch.
    I think they know better than some random person on the internet.

  4. NASA is on the verge of getting back Heavy lift capability and achieving Human spaceflight beyond LEO for the first time since Apollo and you're wishing them to fail.
    "Space fans" these days don't sound like actual space fans anymore.
    Toxic af

  5. Seems like it, probably keeping stuff as cheap as possible with these first ones, until they get them to land properly. They also seem to be covering that schedule in spite of the crashes, at least if SN11 makes the landing and SN15 makes it regular.

  6. F-20 with its bad safety record is not a good analogy for F9.
    SLS does not have the top performance like F22 – it's Starship which does, and it's likely to reach orbit before SLS.

    Vulcan and its orbital space tugs (which is what EELV would evolve into), can have a future, since they're focused on LEO & cis-lunar space, while Starship is mostly focused on Mars and BEO.

  7. Too much Gradatim, too little Ferociter.
    Now that Bezos has left his Amazon role to lead Blue Origin full time, hopefully the pace of their activities will now pick up, so that they don't end finish last. Otherwise, at this rate, they'd be beaten to orbit by Rocket Lab's Neutron.

  8. Has it occurred to you that we're SpaceX fanboys precisely because Musk is taking up the mantle of what NASA has FAILED to do for 50 years, which is continue their own program?

  9. As Musk always tries to tell people, the advances in both SpaceX and Tesla are in manufacturing, not the end products themselves. It's the fact that SpaceX can build a dozen rockets a year for the price of one SLS (or less), that's revolutionary. That's without even considering reuse.

  10. What odd reasoning: "Starship still needs development, therefore the company that has never reached orbit and hasn't even built a single mockup of its orbital rocket will win".


  11. At the rate Bozos has been going, it'll be a hundred years before he could even put an ISS segment into orbit, let alone an O'neill cylinder.

  12. Full reusability is the main advancement that matters as it determines cost-to-orbit far more than any other factor.

  13. I don't think it's the Raptors as much as the control and fuel structures, things like plumbing, valves, thrust puck, programming, vectoring, switching between main and header tanks, maintaining high pressures, restarts, etc. That's what they are working through, nothing better than prototyping and testing to failure to work out these issues.

  14. They don’t want to build it. Congress did the right thing in listening to Griffin. What would become ULA wanted endless smaller EELVs with hydrogen boil off as a feature, not a bug. HLLVs eliminate Rube Goldberg assembly, depots, etc. Now folks think SLS is an albatross—but that is Vulcan—with less LH2 than SLS. Vulcan costs more than Falcon.

    SLS is F-22. Falcon is F-20.

    Vulcan and the EELVs?

  15. Starship isn't that more advance than either rocket. It is different in that it is going for full reusability which neither of the other two is.

  16. This comparison is total nonsense. NASA's Apollo project successfully landed men on the moon and returned them safely to Earth several times almost half-a-century ago. Yet that apparently means nothing to you SpaceX fanboys.

  17. "So you're taking a fixed length cylinder and increasing the diameter. Not as good as scaling square/cube." Actually, purely geometrically, when you increase the diameter of a cylinder it more closely fits the square cube and area relationship as it becomes more squarish. Not building taller is always a practical consideration and the fineness ratio of rockets at this scale is quite forgiving.

    But… there is a better argument. Sloshing IS an important structural consideration. Nevertheless, even in the past they figured out the solution to the sloshing issue. Instead of stacking the tanks vertically, one is nested inside the other either partially or fully. Another benefit of toroidal tank construction is that it allows for thinner tanks which are more lightweight, as was demonstrated empirically at Henry Marietta in the 70-ies and in Russia. Turns out the increased area lowers the force/area (pressure) exerted on the walls, which saves on thickness which empirically turns out to give you a lighter tank. The result is non-intuitive (one could argue both ways), empirics demonstrated it is correct. It is also useful when considering wet lab scenario's. Double stand off wall (spacing between inner and outer tank), increases crew safety. In the case of a methalox combination, the temperatures of the cryo-liquids are very close to one-another so no need for complicated insulation (which is one of the advantages of Methalox over Hydrolox).

  18. "When you size up the SS to 15-25m diameter (similar to the old phoenix designs from the '80-ies) you get the cube/area and weight calculations to work in your favor."

    Not as much as you'd think. They're already limited in the vertical direction by the ratio of fuel density to engine thrust, they can't make the fuel tanks taller. So you're taking a fixed length cylinder and increasing the diameter. Not as good as scaling square/cube.

    Then you factor in the need for internal anti-slosh baffles.

    There would be some gain from doubling the diameter, but not as much as you'd think.

  19. I believe he's said he'd like to catch them by the grid fins because they have to have the grid fins anyway, and if he can catch them by those, he can omit the weight of the landing legs.

    That's his operating principle: The best feature is the feature you can omit.

  20. But if Starship is first, given how much more advanced it is than New Glenn or SLS (or anything else), it will make it very difficult for competitors to justify their existence. I guess it doesn't matter though, as Bezos is too proud to just launch Project Kuiper on SpaceX rockets, and SLS is a pure pork program at this point.

  21. Bezos dream of even a small O'neill cylinder is probably a century off. Massive space based manufacturing will be required to build something that will mass 100's of megatons. I hope he kicks blue origin into high gear now that he stepped down from Amazon.

  22. I don't think it is their plan to fully spin off Starlink. Just sell enough equity in it to fund the capital costs and retain 80% ownership. Use cash flow in the form of dividends or share buybacks to fund SpaceX's long term goals.

  23. would argue that it is better to have a stable of competitors (even if some are weak and full of bacon) than a lone wolf for which all must depend

  24. True. Unless the boosters turn out to be all too flimsy contraptions compared to the more sturdy SS and are (for now) not able to structurally survive reuse. He is already trying to catch them by the wings, probably because the almost empty tanks cannot be pressurized enough (or rapidly enough) to bear the compression loads even if they had a landing gear. He wouldn't have had this problem with a bigger design diameter (which gives you more wiggle room for structural mass) but apparently he wasn't able to sell that idea to his team in 2016-2017, so let's just wait it out and see. If he can't reuse the boosters as often as he'd like, it again starts to make sense to use the SSTO capability of SS (and further develop it) and keep a fast paced launch cadence. Rapid relaunch in a fleet of SS's, even if they launch with a more reduced payload capability, is a big selling point for sat swarm customers who have to compensate for attrition. If he can launch a mere 2mton to LEO for USD 4-10 Million, he's still far better than the competition; especially compared to the microlaunchers.

  25. I will say, though, that based on evidence to date, SpaceX really needs to improve quality control on their Raptor engines. They have a surprisingly high failure rate in the field. 

    I'm not talking about the crashes, though that might be a contributor, but the swap out rate after test firing. You'd assume every engine off the line would get a static test firing before being shipped.

    If the current failure rate holds, given how many engines there are on the Superheavy, they'll have to go through several cycles of test firings to get a complete good set.

  26. "Obviously I believe SpaceX Starship will get to orbit first."

    Wow, I did not see that coming, lol

  27. Agree that, just from a materials to orbit standpoint, the Starship might make sense operating SSTO; It represents a lot of high quality stainless steel, if somebody is building in orbit.

    But the Starship probably has a very enhanced payload to orbit if launched without return capacity using the Superheavy booster, so once that's developed, it would pretty much always make sense to launch them together.

  28. I'm not sure it makes a lot of sense for Starlink to develop rockets after being spunoff by SpaceX. I don't think they're planning on that kind of total independence. 

    Might make some sense for them to improve station keeping thrusters, and possibly even extend that into low acceleration craft capable of interplanetary missions, if there seems to be a market.

  29. The Starship first stage, the Superheavy, is likely to roar through development, as it's not doing anything particularly innovative compared to the second stage. And a lot of the second stage development will transfer right over. 

    So I'm expecting that the orbital launch will occur within a few months of the Starship development completing its first phase. Discounting the Starship's SSTO capacity without cargo; The problem with Starship SSTO is that they make orbit, IIRC, without enough fuel capacity to deorbit and land.

    They could launch into a ballistic path without a circularizing burn, I suppose, but that puts their landing zone somewhere way out in the Atlantic. Would they test land the Starship on one of their drone ships? The Starship is so much larger I'm not sure that's feasible.

    Obviously the first stage will be needed for proper testing of reentry from orbit, but that first orbital flight might well carry some payload for realism.

    Once they've solved the landing hiccups, of course, they can go much higher with the Starship testing before needing the first stage. At that point they might operate in parallel, testing both, so as to have the Superheavy ready when the Starship is ready to be mated to it.

  30. Would Starlink be only focused on satellites? or maybe with $100B or so they will start developing their own starships, rockets(SpaceX speed style), space mining, other space projects.

    That would be amazing and exciting for investors

  31. As far as reaching Orbit I would put my money on Musk and Starship. As far as Blue Origin I don't know what has pushed their timeline for orbit back a year. I do detect a change in direction with this company. It looks to me that Bezos is going to attempt to build the first Oneil type sphere in space. I see he is working with Nasa on developing artificial gravity where the rocket will revolve as it travels thru space. I wonder if they are going to try to add this to the Glenn. Two things are solid for me. Don't count Bezos out. A few years ago Amazon's competition woke up to find Bezo's had built the largest Cloud based software company while they were sleeping. Plus I will still root for all rockets which has the US Flag on it outside skin.

  32. multiple locations? collaborations? cheap land in places adjacent to use with minimal security requirements?

  33. SSTO's have a different mission use case philosophy and envelope. Having the vehicle in orbit is the mission enabler, not necessarily the payload. Getting lost out of sight in your reply is that the minimum design goal of SS was always to function as an interplanetary ascent vehicle in SSTO mode. The gravity wells of most immediate use targeted are: Earth, Luna, Mars. SS has the delta-V capability for all three return ascents. In the case of Earth you only reach LEO (barely but you can and it has use cases), On LUNA you can do return to earth surface with crew complement and sizeable cargo, from Mars you can do return to Earth surface with crew complement and limited cargo (full prop load assumed at lift off). The way SS and SSbooster split up their delta-v capability is creating the best of both worlds and the second stage adds the commercial benefit you point out correctly. But that does not close the case against SSTO's. When you size up the SS to 15-25m diameter (similar to the old phoenix designs from the '80-ies) you get the cube/area and weight calculations to work in your favor. This 1970-ies and 80-ies reasoning explains why the first draft of SS in 2016 was much bigger. The hit on payload would become negligible because you start to save considerably on structural mass. That math is till correct, but you need the market size first to be able to convince an investor to take the gamble. Give it a decade or two.

  34. Indeed, we could also do Mercury habs and Neptune habs too. Space is hard, still, and we need to be smart about our expenditures. Is the surface of a planet the right place for an expanding tech civilization? a. is done long ago, ISS, showing an admittedly weak case that orbit is the answer to that question. c. is Halo Gateway, meant to be refuel station primarily, and lunar jump off for any needed lunar human presence. It will be first place to do ISM from non Earth material, Moon, NEO or TCO. b. and d. seem like money pits, other than science. Why live there, I never learned.

  35. You can't kill what was never alive.

    Hate to admit it but if the first launch is a failure then that is good for humanity's exploration and colonization of space- in particular if SLS failure happens after SpaceX and BO launching successfully.

  36. not convinced that it is as much about First to Orbit -as- how good and scalable and upgradeable and cost effective is your factory; and by extension your supply chain; and by association your product design team/ factory support. Look at Boeing vs Airbus factories. Look at LockheedM, NorthropG, and Maxar satellite factories – are they more like university labs or junkyards with sheltered sheds or german car assembly lines or … I see drone footage of SpaceX compound and think.. geez – upscale this 20x? protect and organize this for the future.. yeesh.

  37. Cheap access to space enables an "all of the above" response:

    a. LEO habs built using materials from Earth
    b Moon habs
    c. LLO moon habs
    d. Mars habs

    a,b,c seem likely to happen first because they are nearby and work better with the limits of chemical propulsion. It will take time to get habs out in the asteroid belt just because it takes time to get there and supply logistics are slow if you use chemical propulsion.

  38. If SpaceX is successful with BFR/BFS then all these expendable/mostly expendable rockets are irrelevant.

  39. For decades SSTO was synonymous with full reusability. The only reason to take your whole rocket up to LEO and pay such a mass penalty was full reusability.

    SpaceX is working to demonstrate that you don't need SSTO to have full reusability. Better yet their two stage approach salvages the mass to LEO and we can see this when we compare a modern SSTO to Starship:

    Skylon SSTO: 15,000 kg to LEO
    Starship 2 stage with reuse: 100,000kg to LEO

  40. BO hasn't put a single gram in to LEO.

    You are "going with" the launch provider who has yet to launch.

  41. SpaceX is going to Spin Starlink off in an IPO. Probably make ~$100 billion up front.

    It isn't a bad idea- managing an ISP probably isn't Elon's idea of fun.

  42. SpaceX completed more than 100 successful orbital launches with a lot of cargo deliveries to ISS and 2 astronaut missions. Blue Origin orbital launch count is 0.

  43. Let's analyze this statement, which is often repeated by people who don't see any potential to a single stage to orbit mission scenario (of course, not knowing yet if SS can indeed reach orbit on its own, but assuming it can be used in this scenario): What possible use could a fully operational but empty space ship in space, waiting to be used, every be? I mean, empty spaceships in orbit are completely useless aren't they? They are a completely useless capability to have. No one will ever have the imagination to do anything with a spare empty space ship in orbit. Shuttle was built with the explicit requirement of having the ability to launch empty (which required design modifications) and to recover sats and other military nic nacs. Elon Musk is not interested in using the SSTO capability, because it makes business sense to launch with paying customers or payload. But the mission scenario exists, and has been executed in the past to recover sats with the Space Shuttle. So the potential customer is already there and he is waiting to see what SS can do in SSTO mode.

  44. Does it matter? To Elon at least? Near as I can tell the engineering of his rockets is second only to his goal planning.
    If we go with Elon's somewhat rosy picture of StarLink, he will have roughly $50 billion a year income to play with in developing his Mars plans. If we go with the pessimist evaluation, he will likely "only" hit $10 billion. This is not considering if he goes public with it at some point and the boatload of money that would bring in. Not even to mention the value and income of his other companies.
    Elon will not need NASA, military funding or jobs from anyone else. He will be a self sustained entity, answerable to nobody and dependent on none to reach his goals. It will not matter if his Starship is first or best or most widely used, they will still more than meet his goals for their use. According to him he is not in this for the money, and I believe him.
    Will he pick up jobs and business? Very likely, and may dominate the sector anyway. Will he need them to meet his stated goals? Not really. Boeing/SLS and Blue Origin cannot say the same unless Bezos discovers a similar space goal and dedicates his fortune to it. I think that is unlikely in the extreme based on Jeff Bezo's statements.
    Elon's goals, drive and planning are on another level. Like him or not he is worthy of respect for what he is accomplishing. He is on the cusp of attaining his long term, beyond blue sky goals and very soon there will be nothing standing in his way.

  45. That would only count as far as the engines go, being a test for bigger New Glenn and New Armstrong engines. The rocket is too small to be in this race, only two BE-4s. But, first of that engine type to boost to orbit, perhaps.

  46. You forgot ULA's Vulcan rocket which is making good progress. I think it has a very good chance of flying this year.

  47. I would just ignore SS w/o booster to orbit, not useful. BE-4 may already be better than Raptor will ever be, bigger and already in production for sale to customer. Raptors being changed out to find one that works. Second stages are so different that it gets more possibilities. If second stage of NG recoverable as the spin off plans, or used as tug in Space, as an H rocket, quite likely, it is far better plan than SS needing fuel launched, or separate/added lunar mine for C, perhaps. Once Bezos is mining the Moon, we will see the reason O'Neill recommends it. If you are on the Mars (wrong) train, every stop is the wrong stop. Things will really get clear when Mars pop is unable to keep up with orbital pop. And Mars pop is making nothing useful but selfies.

  48. More interested in which large methane engine is first to boost to orbit. The rest is fuel tanks. Also, SLS is not really "new" as much as "delayed". It is reconfigured, not new.

  49. SLS is now do or die, as the idiots stacked the SRB's in February before they finished the green run. Apparently there is a SRB stack seal lifetime issue, so the clock starts ticking once they mate SRB segments. They only have a year on the clock.

    Which means they are committed now to launch, even with iffy green run results, unless they are willing to eat the cost of new SRB's, or get a maker waiver on stack seals. Which means the odds of a spectacular firecracker failure on launch just went up a lot.

  50. Starship reuse beats BO superior payload to LEO every day of every week.

    In a way it isn’t an apples to apples competition. BO is making a better F9H while SpaceX is making a fully reusable rocket. If they both succeed then BO comes out the loser.

  51. Starship could scrape orbit this year, but without the second stage it will not be able to loft much. Unless Bezos has a major surprise up his sleeve and is constructing a secret launch pad within the hanger the New Glenn will follow the slow developemnt mantra and be second to orbit. I cannot see the SLS making it up before 2022, certainly not without a fair political wind and even more money.  

    The real question is: will the BFR first stage fly before New Glenn? Given the relative maturity of Raptors vs BF9s and commonality/similarity with F9 config. (grid fins, thrusters, software etc.) it would be hard to bet against the Starship full stack, but if BO drop the gradatim sh1t and focus on the ferociter they could be the second to orbit and perhaps first with a superior payload to second stage Starship. It is going to be interesting. Good luck to all.

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