Blue Origin Continues to Make Launch Complex Progress for the Eventual Debut of New Glenn

by Joseph Navin & Lee Kanayama

The debut of Blue Origin’s orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, has been delayed until no earlier than the fourth quarter of 2022. In advance of pathfinder operations later this year, the company has continued to make progress at Launch Complex 36 and Launch Complex 11, two historic facilities which will support the New Glenn program.

The Atlas era at LC-36

The site that now hosts Blue Origin’s LC-36 was previously an Atlas launch site with two launch pads, LC-36A and LC-36B. Pad LC-36A was located at the east side of the complex, while LC-36B was located on the west side.

LC-36A was the first of the Atlas pads to be built on the site in the early 1960s to serve the Atlas-Centaur family of rockets. 

The first launch from LC-36A was the Atlas Centaur (AC-1) mission on May 8, 1962. It was the first test flight of the Centaur upper stage and the mission ended in a failure less than a minute into flight. The failure was caused when an insulation panel ripped off causing a structural failure.

Over a year later on November 27, 1963, the second Atlas Centaur (AC-2) launched from LC-36A. It was the second test flight of the Centaur upper stage and reached a sub-geostationary transfer orbit. It was the first time an operational liquid hydrogen upper stage reached orbit.

The launch of Atlas-Center 2 from LC-36A

After a nominal countdown on March 2, 1965, Atlas Centaur 5 (AC-5) launched from LC-36A, carrying the Surveyor SD-1 payload, which was a structural pathfinder for later Surveyor missions. Two seconds after liftoff, a fuel valve failure on one of the MA-5 boosters on the Atlas failed, causing a shutdown on the booster engines. The Atlas then fell on LC-36A, which caused a large explosion on the pad, severely damaging it.

At the time, LC-36B was almost complete and was in a mothballed state. After the failure of AC-5, LC-36B was completed while LC-36A was taken offline for significant repairs. On Aug 11, 1965, Atlas Centaur 6 launched from LC-36B, the first launch from that particular pad. The AC-6 mission was similar to the planned AC-5 mission, albeit this time successful. 

On May 30, 1966, the eighth Atlas Centaur (AC-10) launched from LC-36A with the Surveyor 1 lunar lander. Surveyor 1 became the first US spacecraft to land on the Moon. This was the first of seven Atlas Centaur vehicles to launch the Surveyor lunar landers to the Moon. 

All launches were successful in taking the landers to the Moon. The last was Surveyor 7, which launched from LC-36A on January 7, 1968. 

The first Mars orbiter launched on an Atlas-Centaur (AC-23) on May 30, 1971 from LC-36B. Atlas successfully launched Mariner 9 to a heliocentric orbit, and it later became the first spacecraft to orbit another planet. 

LC-36A was the launch site for the Pioneer 10 mission, which launched on March 2, 1972 on an Atlas-Centaur rocket. The Pioneer 10 space probe made a flyby of Jupiter on Dec 3, 1973. NASA would later lose communication with the probe in 2003. 

Atlas-Centaur 27 on LC-36A with the Pioneer 10 spacecraft – via NASA

The 22nd Atlas Centaur (AC-25) launched from LC-36A with the Intelsat-4 2 telecommunication satellite. This was the first Atlas rocket to launch a commercial satellite, successfully delivering it to geostationary transfer orbit. This mission would start a long history of Atlas rockets launching commercial satellites. 

After the Challenger accident in 1986, there was a resurgence in the expendable launch market, which spurred the further development of the Atlas. 

On March 26, 1987, the 67th Atlas Centaur (AC-67) launched from LC-36B with the FLTSATCOM-6 NAVY communication satellite. It successfully lifted off the pad, but while going through a storm cloud was struck by lightning and failed seconds later. 

The maiden launch of the Atlas I (AC-69) occurred on July 25, 1990 from LC-36B. This was the last Atlas to use vernier engines. The introduction of the Atlas II soon followed with the variant’s maiden launch on Dec 7, 1991.

After another year, the Atlas IIA made its first flight, and on Dec 16, 1993, the first Atlas IIAS launched. The Atlas IIAS was based upon the Atlas IIA, but this variant featured four Castor 4A strap-on solid rocket boosters. This was the first Atlas rocket to use strap-on solid rocket boosters. 

The sixth launch of the Atlas IIAS saw the launch of the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO). This was the first interplanetary payload since 1978, and SOHO is still operational to this day.

On May 24, 2000, the first Atlas III (AC-201) launched from LC-36B, carrying the Eutelsat W4 communication satellite into geosynchronous orbit. LC-36B would then be used to solely launch Atlas III rockets for the rest of its operational life.

The introduction of the Atlas III was notable because it used the NPO Energomash RD-180 on the first stage. The Atlas III consisted of two variants, the Atlas IIIA and the Atlas IIIB. Atlas III also introduced the Centaur III upper stage, which is still in operation today on the Atlas V launch vehicle.

The final launch from LC-36A, and the final flight of Atlas II – via Bob Montanaro

The final launch from LC-36A occurred on Aug 31, 2004 when the final Atlas IIAS launched on the NROL-1 mission carrying a classified payload nicknamed “Nemesis.” This was also the last of the Atlas II rockets, and would be the end of the Atlas’s iconic stage and a half system.

The last launch from the original complex occurred on Feb 3, 2005, when an Atlas IIIB (AC-206) launched on the NROL-23 mission with a classified payload from LC-36B. This was also the final launch of the Atlas III, and the last Atlas rocket to use stainless steel balloon tanks.

As the Atlas II and Atlas III were nearing their retirement, the Atlas V program was beginning. The first launch of the Atlas V occurred on Aug 21, 2002 from SLC-41

Over its 43-years of active history, LC-36 has supported 145 missions, across several Atlas-Centaur variants. When the Atlas III was retired there was no need for the launch site, and the complex was deactivated in 2005. 

On June 16, 2007, the mobile service towers at pads A and B were demolished. The launch umbilical towers at both pads at the LC-36 complex had been demolished the previous year. The Atlas-era blockhouse, located between LC-36A and LC-36B was preserved.

The Atlas era at LC-11

LC-11 was one of four Atlas missile launch sites used in the “Missile Row” at what was then the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, active from 1958 to 1964. The site is located to the north and is adjacent to the LC-36 complex. 

Atlas-B at LC-11 prior to the launch of SCORE – via the US Air Force

It was also the launch site for the world’s first communications satellite, SCORE, in November 1958. SCORE, or the Signal Communications by Orbiting Relay, transmitted a Christmas message on shortwave radio which was pre-recorded by President Eisenhower. 

LC-11 was retired in 1964 when Atlas missile testing ended. While it was active, LC-11 was home to 33 launches and hosted four Atlas missile variants.

The launch site was dismantled and left idle for over 50 years.

Blue Origin at LC-36 and LC-11

From mid-2007 to 2015, LC-36 was unused. One idea for the launch pad was to use LC-36 for the Athena III launch vehicle, a plan which never came to fruition. In March 2010, the US Air Force transferred the launch pad to Space Florida and renamed the complex from SLC-36 to LC-36. 

Render of New Glenn at LC-36 – via Blue Origin

In 2016, Blue Origin signed a long-term lease with Space Florida to use LC-36 for its New Glenn rocket. At the same time, Blue Origin also signed a lease to use LC-11 for testing of their BE-4 engine, which would power the New Glenn first stage. 

Since acquiring LC-36, Blue Origin has done some significant work on LC-36 and the adjacent  LC-11. LC-11 is currently being used for BE-4 engine testing and has been merged with the LC-36 launch site.

Blue Origin broke ground at LC-36 in 2016, and over the next couple years, the foundations of the pad were prepared. At the same time, Blue Origin started construction of their production factory at Exploration Park.

In 2017, Blue Origin announced they had chosen LC-11 for BE-4 engine testing. 

The production factory was finished in 2020. The facility is where the New Glenn is produced, assembled, painted, cleaned, and tested. It is also the current home of New Shepard 2 on display. 

In 2018, LC-36 received a delivery of its massive Liquid Methane, Liquid Oxygen, and Liquid Hydrogen tanks for the combined launch complex and engine test facility. At the same time, the ramp from the integration facility to the launch pad began construction.   

In 2019, construction started on the Fixed Service Structure (FSS) and a large water tower. A couple months later, the integration facility for New Glenn started construction as well. By late 2020, construction of LC-36 and LC-11 was nearly complete with the FSS (which also acts as a lightning tower), water tower, integration facility, flame trench, and propellant tanks all nearing completion. A second lighting tower was also added during this time. 

The integration facility was built on the former site of LC-36B, with the new flame trench covering the site of LC-36A.

Late 2020 saw the delivery of the New Glenn launch mount for LC-36, arriving via barge to Port Canaveral before being transported to LC-36. The mount will be part of the rocket’s transporter erector (T/E) and support the weight of the vehicle prior to launch.

Currently, Blue Origin is finishing the launch site in preparation for the New Glenn Pathfinder first stage. This pathfinder will simulate the size and weight of the first stage to ensure smooth operations with the launch pad and T/E. That pathfinder is currently under construction at the production facility and will be rolled out for testing in the coming months.

A refurbish facility located right next to the ramp at LC-36 is also under construction. This will be used to enable New Glenn’s first stage to be inspected and prepared for reuse quickly between flights.

Three flare stacks will be added for liquid methane and liquid hydrogen storage. Alongside the ramp, more buildings will be added for ground support equipment (GSE) Storage as well as hydrogen peroxide propellant and helium gas storage tanks. 

At LC-11, Blue Origin will conduct BE-4 acceptance testing, once a single engine test stand is built at the site. 

New Glenn is Blue Origin’s first orbital launch vehicle. A two-stage, partially reusable, heavy-lift class launch vehicle, it can lift 45,000 kilograms to Low Earth Orbit and 13,600 kilograms to geostationary transfer orbit. This places New Glenn in the same class as SpaceX‘s Falcon Heavy.
The first stage is powered by seven BE-4 methalox engines generating 17.1 meganewtons of thrust. The second stage is powered by two BE-3U hydrolox engines generating 1,400 kilonewtons of thrust. The rocket will be 98 meters tall and 7 meters in diameter, making it one of the largest rockets ever launched.

The first stage is designed to be reusable, conducting downrange landings on Blue Origin’s recovery vessel Jacklyn. The stage uses six total fins, with two large aft-fins for stability and four forward fins for steering. The first stage will then land on Jacklyn using a single BE-4 engine and six deployable landing legs. Each first stage will be able to be reused 25 times. 

Jacklyn was first used ats a roll-on/roll-off cargo ship from 1997 to 2018 under the name Stena Freighter. The ship was acquired by Blue Origin in 2018, and work quickly began to prepare for New Glenn recovery operations. The ship was renamed in December 2020 after Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos’ mother. Since then, it has undergone some minor changes including a ramp being removed and its name being repainted.

Production of New Glenn’s large payload fairings began in 2020. The fairings will be used to protect against aerodynamic forces and used as environmental control for any payloads launched on New Glenn.

New Glenn is currently on contract to launch several payloads, including OneWeb satellites, a mu Space Corp geostationary communications satellite, a SKY Perfect JCSat satellite, and satellites for the Telesat Lightspeed constellation. 

New Glenn may also include a third stage in later versions. The third stage will be powered by a single BE-3U and be used to deliver satellites to high energy orbits.
New Glenn is one proposed launched vehicles for NASA’s Human Landing System program. New Glenn could possibly be used to launch elements of the Blue Origin-led National Team Integrated Landing Vehicle. Blue Origin themselves are designing the descent element of the lander, to be powered by two of their BE-7 hydrolox engines. 

If picked by NASA for the HLS, Blue Origin will conduct a “Tech Demo” for its decent lander. The lander will launch a year before Artemis III to test landing on the moon. New Glenn is also eligible to launch other NASA missions under the agency’s Launch Services Program.

(Lead satellite photo of LC-36 – via Google Earth)

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