Blue Origin: The scientific reason rockets look like dicks
Inquiring minds want to know. We answered.
On Tuesday, Jeff Bezos (cue the song) launched himself up to space along with three other passengers — his brother, a rich teen, and a historically important aviatrix who never got her chance to fly up to space. Gauging by the reactions of the public, one of the most important takeaways wasn’t the flight itself, but the shape of the ship.
New Shepard, the reusable suborbital rocket system, looks like a dick.
But no, really, it was all the internet could talk about:
Fair enough. While most rockets are of a similar shape, New Shepard is especially, um, rounded.
But why exactly is the whole world of rocketry such a cone-waving contest? Is the shape of a rocket more business or pleasure?
New Shepard: The capsule
Lucy Rogers, the author of It’s ONLY Rocket Science: An Introduction in Plain English and an inventor with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, says the shape of a rocket has to be aerodynamic in order to reduce drag.
“Think of a jumbo jet without wings and sitting on its tail,” Rogers tells Inverse. “Arrows, bullets, and fireworks are also generally this shape for the same reasons.”
This means that things like the nose cone have to be designed to reduce drag. In the case of the New Shepard, this means a rounded crew capsule that air can roll right off of.
Paul Freeman, a space artifact photographer, tells Inverse via Twitter that the cone design helps with efficiency.
“The exhaust needs somewhere to go hence the capsule diameter is larger than the booster rocket giving it the characteristic ‘Flesh Gordon’ look,” Freeman says.
In a statement sent to journalists, Scott Manley, a popular YouTuber, says, “They went through a lot of iterations coming up with a perfect shape that gives them the most volume, the best windows, and wouldn’t kill anyone on board, and this is the shape they came up with.”
In a short Twitter thread, Manley also highlighted some of the shape configurations otherwise considered:
In a September Code Conference interview, Musk nervously laughed while answering interviewer Kara Swisher’s questions about ... that shape with, “it could be a different shape potentially, you know ... if you are only doing suborbital then your rocket can be shorter.”
On the other hand, a longer, less dick-shaped rocket is needed to go beyond suborbital altitude. He ended the discussion with, “I have encouraged him to emphasize getting to orbit,” referring to Bezos, who he says he’s communicated these things to through “subtweets.”
You can watch the video here, with the money shot coming in at 21:01.
New Shepard: The rocket
There’s also the matter of the rocket body, the part that produces the thrust. Its dimensions are very specific. A squat rocket might not be able to easily take off.
“The height to width ratio is called slenderness,” Rogers explains. “You can only reduce it so far before you get issues with structural strength and efficiency.”
“Because rockets have to be slender but not too slender, they end up coincidentally looking like being in the same range, very roughly, of aspect ratios to the male anatomy,” she says.
Stephen McParlin, an aerospace consultant, says this also prevents the rocket from getting crushed in flight since the rockets have to take on a variety of speeds.
“[T]he basics are about getting the volume into the minimum cross-sectional area, then ensuring that the shock waves at each end don’t cause structural/heating damage,” McParlin tells Inverse via Twitter.
In a world without an atmosphere, a rocket wouldn’t have to be a cylindrical column and butt of such jokes.
“You would probably just make the rocket closer to a sphere, or any shape you want, such as the Millennium Falcon,” Rogers says.
Last but not least: The flared base
A rocket is more than its cone and body.
The base of each rocket also has fins providing stability in flight. The New Shepard actually has two sets of fins:
- One set just under the capsule to “stabilize the booster and reduce the fuel use” on its return trip
- Another set at the base for liftoff and stability as the craft hits Mach 4
While not all rockets have fins, they’re common on suborbital rockets, which don’t produce as much thrust due to their more limited scope. They often go up and down, rather than up and into a circle around the Earth.
How do the other boys measure up?
Is Blue Origin the only company whose rocket looks like ... that?
Yes and no. The rocket is unusually phallic-looking, but rockets have been phallic since ... well, we’ve had rockets. Witness the Mercury-Redstone that took the first American astronauts to space:
Alan Shepard’s Mercury-Redstone 3 launch vehicle certainly looks a lot like the New Shepard in the body and fins, albeit with a differently shaped (still aerodynamic) capsule.
In fact, NASA’s first fleet of rockets had ... a lot to say. Saturn V, which ferried astronauts to the Moon, is on the far right.
NASA is currently, and increasingly, turning to the Falcon 9 and other SpaceX variants for their orbital flight needs. It, too, bears an uncanny resemblance to impolite regions. As does, frankly, the entire Falcon fleet:
Its Starship rocket gleams like car chrome, giving it a weird double metaphor:
And Rocket Lab, a recent entrant in the private space market, has its Electron rocket:
But none are quite as sausage-like as New Shepard. It has more human-like proportions and a rounded, slightly larger top.
At least the New Glenn, Blue Origin’s planned orbital rocket, is a little less overt.
According to one aerospace engineer Inverse spoke with, who did not wish to be identified by name:
“We definitely discuss things like this, and certain rockets get mocked more than others — you can likely imagine which.”
Indeed we can.