Blue Origin works towards New Glenn debut, ramps BE-4 deliveries

by Harry Stranger

Over the past few months, Blue Origin has been busy progressing on many of its projects as target dates move closer. New Glenn continues to inch closer to launch, facilities are being expanded, BE-4 engines have been delivered to ULA, and New Shepard has returned to crewed flights.
New Glenn

With the September launch window of NASA’s EscaPADE Mars mission closing in, teams are working through the tail-end of tests at Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) to prepare the site for its first static fire and launch.

On March 12, Blue rolled back the New Glenn Pathfinder first stage after completing cryogenic and ground system testing on the launch pad. The 7-meter-wide and 45-meter-long stage made the trek back to the company’s campus at Exploration Park, just outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center.

The New Glenn first stage pathfinder is transported back to the factory following cryogenic testing. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

While back inside the first stage integration facility, it is likely that the stage is being closely inspected following its round of testing. From there, the stage will be integrated with an engine section and BE-4 engines that could support a static fire alongside a flight-ready interstage and possible aero surfaces. It is still unclear if this booster will fly with the same hardware it performs the static fire with, or if there will be further upgrades before the vehicle is flight-ready.

In late March, Blue Origin rolled the second-stage transporter erector to the launch pad for more testing and checks. A New Glenn second stage hasn’t been transported to the pad on this structure yet, though Blue may still have that test planned before New Glenn’s first flight. The second stage transporter erector features two cutouts at its base which suggests the possibility of testing the twin BE-3U engines on the launch pad.

More recently, on May 23, the New Glenn Simulator rolled to the pad on the main transporter erector to support further pad testing. According to Blue Origin, the tests will involve powering up pumps to pressurize the vehicle’s hydraulic system, using ground systems to supply commodities to the rocket, and a rapid retract test of the umbilical connections. Such tests are an important part of the launch countdown for both a new rocket and new launch pad infrastructure.

A long-awaited update on New Glenn’s sea-based landing platform recently arrived as Landing Platform Vessel 1 was relocated from Romania to France. The modified barge is still under construction as large amounts of scaffolding remain onboard. According to documentation, the vessel has a size of 116 x 46 m. It is currently unclear when it will be transported to Port Canaveral – but when it does, it will bring New Glenn one step closer to launch.

All these developments bring New Glenn and its infrastructure closer to the maiden launch, still scheduled for later this year.

Exploration Park

At Blue’s Space Coast rocket production campus, work continues to support not only New Glenn production and operations but also the company’s other programs, such as Blue Moon.

Groundwork for the Lunar Assembly Facility is well underway at Blue Origin’s campus. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Recent documents from Space Florida reveal that Blue is currently working on constructing a Lunar Assembly Facility (also referred to as Project Lunar Production Facility). This replaces the planned Composite Assembly Building which was revealed through public planning documents in 2022. Groundwork for this roughly 18,000-square-meter building is currently underway, although the expected completion date is unknown.

Blue Origin still aims to launch the first Blue Moon MK1 cargo lunar lander on New Glenn in early 2025 as a pathfinder mission to test the system’s technologies. Following the MK1 cargo lander, Blue is contracted by NASA to land cargo and crew on the Moon as part of the Artemis program with its MK2 lander. With this in mind, it makes sense that Blue wants to ensure there is plenty of space to produce its landers right on the Space Coast.

To support all of this, Blue is also in the process of building a new parking garage to support the growing number of employees and contractors on-site, as well as older plans showing that the company intends to construct more buildings over an existing large parking area on the south side of the campus.

A New Glenn second stage inside of the 2CAT building. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

During a flyover last month, a New Glenn second-stage tank was captured standing vertically inside the 2CAT building on Blue’s property. This is where it is believed the stages are put through pressure testing before moving on to the next steps in production. Nearby, what appeared to be a wrapped section of a New Glenn first stage was lying outside on cradles.

BE-4 Testing and Deliveries

Over the past few months, locals in the Huntsville area – where NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center is located – have reported an increase in rocket engine tests coming from the area. NASA and Blue Origin signed a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement in 2019 where the company would refurbish historic Test Stand 4670 for use with its BE-3U and BE-4 engines. The increase in testing is a good sign not only for New Glenn, which requires seven BE-4s per first stage and two BE-3Us per second stage, but also for ULA’s Vulcan rocket which uses two BE-4 engines per rocket.

In addition to these reports, ULA CEO Tory Bruno recently shared an image showing two BE-4 engines and a Vulcan first stage, both of which will fly the rocket’s third mission. Bruno recently commented that the delivery rate of BE-4 engines for Vulcan was two per month and increasing towards one and a half per week.

New Shepard

Following an inflight anomaly caused by New Shepard’s BE-3 engine nozzle in September 2022 and a successful return to flight with an uncrewed mission in December 2023, New Shepard took to the skies once again with passengers onboard on May 19. The group of six rode New Shepard up to 107 km and back for a total mission time of just under 10 minutes.

New Shepard lifts off during the NS-25 mission. (Credit: Blue Origin)

While the flight was completed safely, it was observed that only two of the three main parachutes deployed on the capsule. While the craft is designed to safely land on only two main chutes, there’s no doubt that Blue will be looking into this before the next mission.

(Lead Image: New Glenn Simulator rolling out to LC-36 for additional ground systems testing. Credit: Blue Origin)

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