Four reusable RS-25 engines will power NASA's SLS rocket as it ascends into space, and then they'll be discarded. (credit: NASA)

On the Monday before Thanksgiving NASA made what it deemed a momentous announcement: the space agency had awarded $1.16 billion to Aerojet Rocketdyne for rocket engines that would power its “Journey to Mars.” By contrast, a few hours earlier, the private space company Blue Origin secretly launched a rocket into space and safely landed it. The contrast between the deal struck in corridors of Washington D.C. and what had happened in the desert of West Texas could not have been more stark.

The engines that will power NASA’s new rocket, the Space Launch System, were first developed in 1970. These RS-25 engines that gave the space shuttle its thrust were engineering marvels; with some refurbishment NASA could use them over and over again. But now NASA is funding a contract to restart production of those old engines because they would no longer be reused. Like the rest of the massive SLS rocket, its engines will be used once and then burn up in the atmosphere.

In contrast to the billions of dollars NASA spends on legacy hardware, Blue Origin has received about $25 million from the agency during its 15-year existence. That’s less than the cost of a single RS-25 engine. With the launch of its New Shepard vehicle, Blue Origin has gone not only for reusable engines but a reusable booster and a reusable spacecraft. Why? Because this approach is much, much cheaper than throwing flight-quality hardware away after every launch.

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