While SpaceX has captured headlines with its first test flight of Starship, Blue Origin, the company founded by rival billionaire Jeff Bezos, is ramping up work on its own reusable heavy-lift rocket and a reusable Starship-like vehicle.
The New Glenn rocket, listed as having a payload capacity of 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit or 45 metric tons to low Earth orbit, is Blue Origin’s entry into the heavy-lift launch services arena. New Glenn has been seen to make visible progress recently, captured by imagery from NSF’s photographers over the Cape Canaveral area.
New Glenn is coming:
A test article – though not necessarily a flight article – of the New Glenn first stage, or one of its tanks, was recently seen at the Tank Cleaning and Testing (TCAT) building on the grounds of Blue Origin’s Exploration Park campus. This campus is in the Cape Canaveral area, not far from the company’s launch facility at LC-36 on the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
The New Glenn’s first stage, powered by seven BE-4 engines, is being designed for landings and reusability from the start. It is believed that Blue Origin will try to land New Glenn on a barge in the Atlantic on its first flight, and reuse is part of the plan for New Glenn operations.
At the second stage Cleaning and Testing tank facility (2CAT), a second stage – possibly a test article as well – was recently seen. It is thought the stage will undergo pressure testing, and will receive its insulation at the surface coating facility.
Testing hardware for second stages was also seen on the pad at LC-36, which would allow the company to test the stages on site before being stacked to the New Glenn rocket.
The New Glenn second stage is not initially planned to be returned to Earth for reuse, but a project code-named “Jarvis” has been underway for some time. Jarvis, also known as Clipper, is thought to be a reusable second stage for New Glenn, though not many details have come out regarding the project.
A test article seen on the northern side of LC-36 looks remarkably like early Starship testbeds such as SN5. The test article could undergo pressure and cryogenic fluid testing in the future at the LC-36 test site, in a similar manner to Starship articles in Boca Chica, Texas.
Testing of New Glenn’s seven-meter wide fairing has also been conducted, and Blue Origin may intend to recover these.
This would make sense as the fairings, larger than any other fairings ever flown, are made of expensive carbon composite material. Recovery procedures were demonstrated for these fairings at the Kennedy Space Center turn basin last year.
A transporter was seen with a barrel section of New Glenn at the warehouse on the campus. This would indicate that some production of launch vehicle segments is underway at the factory, located on site at Exploration Park.
Production activity is also reported to be high at Blue Origin’s Huntsville, Alabama, and Kent, Washington facilities.
Blue Origin is also working on additions to its South Campus that would support space vehicle manufacturing. A maintenance support facility, chemical process facility, warehouse expansion, and a temporary office compound have been mentioned in an environmental resource management plan filed with the state of Florida.
Blue Origin hopes to conduct the first flight of New Glenn next year, though it remains to be seen whether the schedule holds. The version of the BE-4 slated for New Glenn, with reuse capability, needs to be ready, and the BE-4 needs to prove itself on the ULA Vulcan rocket later this year.
The flight engines for the first Vulcan launch were delivered and installed on the rocket’s first stage, and tanking tests on both stages were conducted. However, there was an issue with the GSE hooked to the Centaur V upper stage during its test.
In addition, the investigation into a test that ended in an explosion at Marshall Space Flight Center has caused the first Vulcan launch to be pushed back to at least the end of July. The wet dress rehearsal for Vulcan is currently set for early July. A launch in the late summer of 2023 would likely be the first realistic opportunity for the inaugural flight.
In other Blue Origin news, New Shepard is preparing for a return to flight. New Shepard flight NS-23 failed last year due to a structural fatigue failure on the engine nozzle, and work has been done to prevent a recurrence. The stage lost on the flight had been reused a number of times, and material fatigue issues, in general, can bear watching as more space vehicles are reused in the coming years.
The return to flight mission is planned to be a repeat of NS-23 with the same experiments, and like the failed flight, with no crew on board. The schedule for New Shepard’s return to flight, or the return of crewed flights, is not currently known. However, the company hopes to return to flight before the end of 2023.
While Blue Origin works on returning New Shepard to flight, and New Glenn flying, projects like the Blue Moon lander and Orbital Reef – in cooperation with Sierra Nevada – are underway. These projects are more long-term in nature, while the company is working on securing additional business for New Glenn in the nearer term.
Payloads such as NASA’s ESCAPADE mission to Mars, built by Rocket Lab, and Project Kuiper have signed on for New Glenn launches. Project Kuiper, a broadband constellation designed to offer internet service to individual users as a competitor to Starlink, has signed up for 12 New Glenn launches with 15 options.
(Lead image: Blue Origin’s manufacturing and processing facilities at Exploration Park. Credit: Max Evans for NSF/L2)