Blue Update: New Glenn testing hardware at the Cape as New Shepard closes in on return to flight

by Adrian Beil

Recently, Blue Origin has completed several milestones in its programs, as it inches closer to a debut flight of its New Glenn rocket. The successful BE-4 firings below the Vulcan rocket, modifications on pad and infrastructure, and winning the contract for the Artemis V lander have put Blue Origin in a better position than their previous situation, with a delayed rocket and a struggle to secure contracts. Ongoing efforts also include the possibility of a fully-reusable New Glenn.


Work on the vertical assembly building and the Reef Pathfinder building has progressed over the last few months. The Reef Pathfinder building is related to the assembly and work on Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station and is located on the company’s campus at the Cape.

Orbital Reef is a space station that is being built by Blue Origin and Sierra Space. It is planned to start operation in 2027. Blue Origin will mainly contribute launch services to the station, as New Glenn will be the rocket used to place the station into orbit and to carry people and cargo to it once operational.

The Reef pathfinder building (Left) and the vertical assembly building (Right) in construction at the cape. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

While it is unclear what the exact purpose of the vertical assembly building is, it will likely be related to New Glenn’s construction efforts at the cape. The building features a fully constructed frame at this point. Blue has not yet confirmed the exact purpose of the building in updated plans.

Approved development plans show that Blue Origin is due to add more buildings to the southern side of its Exploration Park campus. This includes a Chemical Processing Facility, Composite Assembly Building, and more. These buildings have yet to start construction.

Testing at the Cape

Blue Origin recently started to conduct fairing drop tests again, having initially aborted these tests in January. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) and Marine Safety Information Bulletins (MSIBs) were posted, which confirmed drop testing close to the Cape between June 27 and June 30.

In these tests, a helicopter is used to drop one of the halves of a New Glenn payload fairing, to splash down and be scooped from the ocean. These tests are early stages of preparing the fairing for a potential recovery in upcoming New Glenn missions, similar to the approach SpaceX has taken with recovering their payload fairings. The tests have not been confirmed yet at the time of writing.

Additionally, a New Glenn upper stage test tank has been spotted in the second stage Tank Cleaning and Testing Facility at Blue’s Exploration Park campus. It is unclear what type of testing has been conducted with the test tank, as it could be anything from fit checks or tank cleaning, to pressure tests. A first stage related tank was spotted in the Tank Cleaning and Testing Facility, with similar uncertainty about where in the testing process this article is.

A New Glenn second stage test tank in the 2CAT building. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Another test that Blue Origin conducted was a full vertical erection of the New Glenn transporter erector at Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36). It featured additional installed hardware compared to what was seen last time. This included a circular frame at the base of the T/E with a large hexagonal cutout in the middle. This frame was also visible on previous renders, posted by the company.

Of course, Blue Origin’s Cape facility’s biggest testing project is its reusable second stage development program, also called Project Jarvis. The Jarvis test tanks were constructed and tested at the tent area next to SLC-36, where they were spotted with header tanks and normal tanks.

NSF’s recent flyover also spotted ring sections for a possible new Jarvis tank. This development could see New Glenn become one of the world’s first fully-reusable launch vehicles, with SpaceX also aiming for full reusability with its Starship program.

Different tests could be conducted using the newly constructed test stand at the Glenn Stage 1 test area next to the pad. The area is connected to ground support equipment (GSE) tanks and could serve a role in the ongoing first stage tank test efforts of Blue Origin at the Cape.

BE-4 successfully fired below Vulcan

According to reports from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin, the BE-4 engine performed flawlessly on the flight readiness firing (FRF) of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. While the rocket might not fly in 2023 due to issues with the Centaur upper stage, this test clears Blue Origin’s contributions to the rocket for flight. The same engines will be used to power New Glenn’s first stage.

Two BE-4 engines firing below Vulcan. (Credit: ULA)

Blue has not confirmed if similar specs will be used for Vulcan and New Glenn BE-4s, as the initial Vulcan rockets will not pursue a reusable first stage engine. New Glenn will be equipped for reusability from the start, based on the information provided by Blue Origin, so a specification difference is a possibility.

Contracts and Artemis V

NASA recently assigned the Artemis V lander contract to the National Team, led by Blue Origin. This represents the biggest contract that Blue Origin has ever won, at over three billion dollars. Blue will also invest a significant amount of money in the construction of their lander, to be ready for the third crewed lunar landing mission of the Artemis program, currently planned around 2029. 

The lander will be able to carry 20 metric tons in a reusable configuration to the lunar surface and will be launched aboard a New Glenn rocket. Lockheed Martin’s cislunar transporter will perform the refueling of the lander in orbit. The Artemis III and IV landing missions are expected to use SpaceX’s Starship as their landing vehicles.

New Shepard return-to-flight

New Shepard was grounded after a failure during the uncrewed NS-23 flight in September 2022. During that launch, the engine nozzle of the BE-3 engine failed, which resulted in a loss of control and, ultimately, termination of the flight. Since then, Blue Origin has been working on restarting New Shepard flight operations, and according to an interview with Bob Smith at the Investing in Space event by the Financial Times, the company looks set to resume operations of the suborbital rocket in the coming weeks. 

New Shepard performing an abort on the NS-23 mission. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Once a date for New Shepard’s return to flight is confirmed, it will start the campaign for mission 24 of the New Shepard program, which so far has only suffered one major anomaly.

(Lead image: Render of the National Team´s Moon lander. Credit: Blue Origin)

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