Years in the making, but finally revealed on Monday, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket has been shown for the first time via its founder Jeff Bezos. Arriving in two variants, the new – and surprisingly powerful – orbital rocket is scheduled to debut from Cape Canaveral’s SLC-36 by the end of the decade. Like its suborbital sister – the New Shepard – its booster stage will be reusable.
Blue Origin has been busy testing its suborbital vehicle from its West Texas launch site, with four consecutive successes in a row for its New Shepard rocket.
Launching a crew capsule that is now aimed at the suborbital tourism market, this system is just the first step in Mr. Bezos’ forward plan.
With New Shepard utilizing a single BE-3 engine, the company’s ambition is to accelerate into the orbital market, via the use of its more powerful BE-4 engine.
Excitement about that engine’s capabilities won over industry stalwarts United Launch Alliance (ULA), resulting in the baselining of the Blue Origin engine into ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
Prior to a recent increase in openness via the fourth flight of the New Shepard – the first test to be webcast live by the company – Blue Origin was known to be somewhat secretive, which in turn placed some doubts over its viability past the suborbital realm.
However, Monday’s announcement of its orbital rocket also came with a part-explanation to that secretive approach.
“Our mascot is the tortoise. We paint one on our vehicles after each successful flight. Our motto is ‘Gradatim Ferociter’ – step by step, ferociously. We believe ‘slow is smooth and smooth is fast,'” noted Mr. Bezos.
“In the long run, deliberate and methodical wins the day, and you do things quickest by never skipping steps. This step-by-step approach is a powerful enabler of boldness and a critical ingredient in achieving the audacious.
“We’re excited to give you a preview of our next step. One we’ve been working on for four years. Meet New Glenn.”
Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is based around two variants – a two stage and a three stage launch vehicle – and a reusable booster stage.
No information has been released as to where the booster stage will land, although it is believed Blue Origin is evaluating the option of an “ocean-going platform,” per planning documentation associated with the launch site.
“Building, flying, landing, and re-flying New Shepard has taught us so much about how to design for practical, operable reusability. And New Glenn incorporates all of those learnings,” Mr. Bezos added.
The rocket – 23 feet in diameter – sports 3.85 million pounds thrust via the use of seven BE-4 engines consuming liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen.
Mr. Bezos added that the two-stage New Glenn is 270 feet tall, and its second stage is powered by a single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine (the BE-4U).
The 3-stage New Glenn is 313 feet tall. A single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine, burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, powers its third stage. The booster and the second stage are identical in both variants.
The three-stage variant – with its high specific impulse hydrogen upper stage – is capable of flying demanding beyond-LEO missions.
As for the timeline, Mr. Bezos confirmed the rocket will enjoy her maiden flight by the end of the decade, utilizing the historic LC-36 complex at the Cape.
Blue Origin evaluated a number of sites for a large production facility, before finally settling on the Space Coast location.
Assisted at the political level, with aerospace economic development agency, Space Florida, the focal point for finalizing the deal, Blue Origin selected the Space Coast out of options in 12 States.
The announcement came almost a year to the day to the revealing of the rocket that will launch from that site.
LC-36 – and its two pads – has a huge history, involving 145 launches over four decades.
It was the launch site for missions ranging from interplanetary to communications and national defense payloads.
In the mid-1960s, the complex suffered a dramatic failure when the fifth Atlas-Centaur – and final rocket to use the Centaur-C – lifted off from LC-36A on 2 March 1965 with the SD-1 spacecraft; a dynamic test article for the Surveyor program.
Two seconds after liftoff, an engine failure resulted in the rocket falling back onto its launch pad and exploding, causing significant damage to the complex.
Following this failure, construction of a second launch pad at LC-36B, which had been put on hold, was resumed, and the pad was completed later that year.
With LC-36A still under repair, the sixth Atlas-Centaur launch, and first flight of the RL10A-3-1 powered Centaur-D, lifted off in August carrying SD-2.
Notable missions to launch from LC-36 include the Mariner missions – the first US spacecraft to visit other planets, Pioneer 10 – the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt, and Surveyor 1 – the first US spacecraft to land softly on the Moon.
The major structures at the complex were demolished in 2006, a year after its final launch – conducted by an Atlas IIAS, lofting the NROL-1 spacecraft.
The potential to revamp the complex came in 2010 when the USAF 45th Space Wing issued a Real Property License to Space Florida for LC-36.
Five years later, Moon Express leased the pad in from Space Florida to use as a test site for the MTC-1X Lunar lander flight test vehicle.
However, Blue Origin will breath new life into the complex, as Blue Origin utilize the Space Coast area not only for launches but for the production of hardware.
The ambition is clear, with Mr. Bezos ending his Monday announcement with his ambitions for the new system, and a hat tip to the name of another new project called the New Armstrong. It is not yet known if this is the name of a new crew capsule or an even more powerful launch vehicle. However, it is believed to be the latter.
“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.”
(Images via Blue Origin, NASA and L2 Historical).