Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket gets closer to launch

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket gets closer to launch

There’s an easy flipside to the space dreams of Jeff Bezos and his rocket company, Blue Origin: In its 24th year of existence, the company has yet to launch anything into orbit.

Blue Origin’s accomplishments to date are modest: a small vehicle known as New Shepard that takes space tourists and their experiments on brief suborbital jaunts. In contrast, SpaceX, the rocket company created by the other space billionaire, Elon Musk, now dominates the launch market.

On Wednesday, Blue Origin hopes to change the narrative by hosting a release party of sorts for its big new rocket.

In the morning, at Launch Complex 36 of the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida, the doors to a giant garage opened. The rocket, as tall as a 32-story building, sat horizontally on the trusses of a mobile launch platform.

The contraption relied on a transport mechanism that resembles several long mechanical centipedes, but with wheels, 288 in all, instead of feet. He began to drive slowly and climb a concrete slope, a quarter-mile journey to the launch pad.

The rocket will undergo at least a week of testing before returning to the garage.

“I’m confident there will be a launch this year,” Dave Limp, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in an interview. “We are going to show a lot of progress this year. “I think people will see how quickly we can act.”

Named New Glenn in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth in 1962, the powerful rocket will be capable of carrying approximately 100,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. That’s a higher lift capacity than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, but not as much as the Falcon Heavy.

New Glenn is one of several rockets expected to debut this year, adding to competition for SpaceX. In January, the Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, successfully completed its maiden flight. It used two of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, proving that their design met expectations. The first stage of New Glenn will use seven BE-4s.

Later this year, Ariane 6, a rocket designed by the European Space Agency, is expected to make its first flight, and SpaceX continues work on its gigantic Starship rocket that is to take NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon.

Carissa Christensen, chief executive of BryceTech, a space consulting firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, said the wealth of Mr. Bezos, the Amazon founder, gave Blue Origin credibility from the start.

“You’ve heard that saying,” she said. “Rockets run on money. So the depth of resources that this company has, the commitment of its founder, I think, makes it unique.

But having the luxury of billions of dollars may have meant Blue Origin didn’t always act with much urgency, she said. “Maybe it leads you to a bit of a perfectionist pattern,” Ms. Christensen said.

The rocket currently on Blue Origin’s launch pad isn’t quite the one that will launch later this year.

The booster tanks are those intended for space, but the rest of the booster may or may not be used for launch. Additionally, the BE-4 engines have not yet been installed. The second stage and the nose cone are only test versions.

Over the next few days, Blue Origin will practice filling the rocket’s propellant tanks.

A few miles away, a rocket factory is manufacturing parts for future New Glenn rockets.

In 2015, Mr. Bezos announced plans to build and launch rockets in Florida, with the first launch taking place by 2020. Within a few years, a giant Blue Origin factory was built on an empty lot nearby from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. , but what was happening inside remained a mystery to outsiders.

Jarrett Jones, senior vice president overseeing development of New Glenn, said the factory was empty when he joined Blue Origin in 2019.

“We went from a simple building with duct tape on the floor to everything you see today,” he said during a tour of the factory in late January.

The large factory, which spans 650,000 square feet, is full but not cluttered with partially built rockets. The rocket parts enter one side of the factory and are assembled at stations stretching the length of the factory, which spans four football fields.

An upper section of a New Glenn booster towered in the middle of the factory, with massive fins at the top. “They’re about 15 feet long and about eight feet deep,” said Jordan Charles, vice president in charge of the booster. “They do very little climbing. They do a lot of things on the way down. “They help guide the vehicle.”

New Glenn’s boosters will land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean and then depart, for at least 25 flights. This is similar to how SpaceX lands and reuses its Falcon 9 boosters.

Unlike SpaceX, which has taken a progressive fail-until-you-make-it approach, Blue Origin hopes that everything will work the first time and that its engineers already know enough after landing New Shepard’s much smaller boosters .

“The software, the guidance, it’s all very similar to what we did in New Shepard and that gives us a lot of confidence,” Mr. Charles said.

Passing through a doorway, one enters another cavernous space, this one intended for manufacturing the rocket’s nose cones, or fairings, which protect payloads during ascent through the atmosphere. New Glenn, measuring 23 feet in diameter, is wider than most other rockets and its fairing is twice as bulky as those used by slimmer competitors, Blue Origin says.

Once the launch pad tests are completed, the rocket will be returned to the garage and the stages dismantled.

From there, Blue Origin will then begin assembling the final version of New Glenn for its first launch, installing the engines and testing their firing.

No launch date has been announced. Blue Origin hasn’t confirmed the first payload, but it could be two identical small NASA spacecraft for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or EscaPADE, mission, which will study magnetic fields around Mars.

Mr Jones said he expected two New Glenn launches this year and hoped to ramp up launches next year, to one per month. Even getting close to that pace would be impressive.

SpaceX took years to reach its dizzying launch pace, which now averages about twice a week. The first Falcon 9 rocket took off in 2010. It was not until 2017 that the number of Falcon 9 launches reached double digits.

“We will have the equipment, the tooling capacity and the launch system to be able to do 12 launches per year immediately,” Mr Jones said. Ultimately, the goal is to have 24 per year or more, he said.

Mr. Limp is not so certain that a second New Glenn launch will take off this year. “It’s hard to look around this corner because you’re going to learn a lot from the first launch,” he said. “I would just say I’ll be very happy if we launch one this year, that’s for sure.”

He became chief executive of Blue Origin in December, and at first glance it seemed like an odd choice to lead a rocket company. He had worked at Amazon, overseeing the consumer electronics division that includes Echo smart speakers, Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets.

As part of that job, he had some space experience leading Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which plans to launch a constellation of internet satellites to rival SpaceX’s Starlink service.

About a year ago I decided, “I always wanted to do something new, but I just didn’t want to be in the consumer electronics business.” » Mr. Bezos suggested he might be able to replace Bob Smith, who had decided to retire as head of Blue Origin.

“My first reaction was: Well, I don’t know much about rockets, maybe not,” Mr. Limp recalls.

But within months, Mr. Bezos convinced him “that he didn’t think Blue needed another rocket scientist,” Mr. Limp said. “We have buildings full of them. But what he needed was leadership on the scale that Blue had become.

He said his experience in consumer electronics — taking conceptual ideas, creating prototypes, turning them into finished products, then manufacturing millions of them — could come in handy. Blue Origin won’t build millions of rockets, but it will have to build more and faster.

Mr. Limp also wants Blue Origin to make decisions more quickly. “Maybe what we were doing was striving for perfection in a lot of things,” he said.

Taking a little more risk “makes you move much, much faster,” he said.

Mr. Limp sees a future with many new business opportunities off-Earth. “My view is that the demand for orbital launch vehicles will be much higher than people predict in five years,” he said. “It won’t be like Blue Origin wins, SpaceX loses, or vice versa. “There will be several winners.”

Blue Origin’s other projects include a lunar lander for NASA and the Orbital Reef space station. “They are building fundamental capabilities for a long-term vision,” he said. “So there’s a method to what we do.”

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David B.Otero

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