Blue Origin nearing New Glenn milestones ahead of debut flight

by Harry Stranger

As 2023 nears its close, there has been a large increase in publicly visible movement from Blue Origin around its Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral facilities. With sightings of New Glenn booster segments, upper-stage tank sections, payload fairings, and new support hardware arriving at Port Canaveral, it seems Blue Origin is pushing to hit major milestones in 2024.

On Nov. 27, 2023, a New Glenn first-stage tank section was captured outside of Blue Origin’s main manufacturing facility at its Exploration Park campus. This section — referred to as the “First Stage Mid Module” by Blue Origin in the 2018 New Glenn payload users guide — is the combination of both the liquid natural gas and liquid oxygen tanks. This section is the largest and most complete part of a New Glenn booster that has been publicly seen.

With the booster section moved back into the manufacturing facility, it should soon be receiving its Aft Module, which will host 7 BE-4 engines, as well as the 6 landing legs. The Forward Module, which serves as an interstage between the first and second stages and hosts the four actuated aerodynamic control fins, would also be in line to be integrated with the top of the booster.

A New Glenn Payload fairing at Launch Complex 36. (Credit: Stephen Marr for NSF)

Earlier last week, a New Glenn payload fairing was spotted at Blue’s Launch Complex 36 (LC-36). The 21.9-meter tall, 7-meter diameter fairing stood vertical at the launch pad for a number of days before it was rolled back into the integration facility. While it is unclear exactly what it was being used for, it may have been testing the launch site’s payload air conditioning systems.

Over the past several months, Blue Origin has completed a number of tests with both the transporter erector which will support the full 98-meter-tall New Glenn stack, as well as a smaller transporter erector, which will be used to test upper stages on the launch pad.

The smaller transporter erector features two cutouts in the bottom of the structure to fit the twin BE-3U engines that will protrude from the aft end of New Glenn’s upper stage. With this, Blue Origin will have the ability to static fire the two BE-3U engines directly on the launch pad without having to either build a dedicated test stand at the launch site or ship the stages to an external facility for testing. However, the smaller transporter erector has now rolled back from the pad and is sitting outside of the integration facility.

The transporter erector for New Glenn’s second stage is seen vertical on Launch Complex 36. (Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

Alongside the main transporter erector and the payload fairings inside the integration facility, the two simulator (or pathfinder) stages for New Glenn are also believed to be inside. These true-to-scale structures have been used to train teams to handle New Glenn’s 7-meter-diameter stages at both the production facility at Exploration Park, as well as at Launch Complex 36. This continues to leave open the possibility that Blue may stack a full-size New Glenn simulator on the transporter erector and roll it out to the launch pad.

This process would not only give employees a chance to get some practice with transporting such a large vehicle to the launch pad but also test the transporter erector with a structure equal to New Glenn’s dry mass.

A large jig, likely to support New Glenn recovery operations, being delivered to Port Canaveral via barge (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

In early October, a large Liebherr mobile crane was delivered to Port Canaveral to support Blue Origin’s continuously growing presence on the Space Coast. Once New Glenn begins flying, this crane will assist recovery operations by lifting the 57.5-meter-tall first stage from the landing vessel and onto shore. 

More recently on Nov. 27, a large jig on a barge was towed into Port Canaveral and proceeded to be offloaded by Blue Origin’s new crane. This custom-made structure appears to be a stand to support New Glenn first stages after being offloaded from its landing vessel. Various work platforms will allow crews to inspect the boosters in different locations before the booster itself is transported back to the factory, or the future refurbishment facility which is still yet to be built.

A render of the Blue Ring spacecraft operating in orbit. (Credit: Blue Origin)

In addition to working on its New Glenn rocket, Blue announced a new spacecraft platform named Blue Ring, an in-space vehicle that can not only carry numerous payloads, both hosted and deployable, but also perform services such as refueling, multi-orbit transportation, data relay, and more. According to Blue Origin, Blue Ring can support payloads of more than 3,000 kilograms and provide unprecedented delta-V capabilities.

This shows the company has plans to jump on the fast-growing market for in-space services. Other companies such as Rocket Lab and Launcher have already begun operations with their spacecraft platforms. However, with New Glenn’s immense scale, Blue Ring could offer a much larger platform for such services as well as lowering the costs to access space for the rest of the industry.

(Lead image: A New Glenn First Stage Mid Module outside of Blue Origin’s Florida factory. Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

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