Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand


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Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has finalized a lease agreement with NASA to refurbish and use one of its old engine test stands, sitting idle since 1998.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of their BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines. The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

“This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the Moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998.

According to the press release, Blue Origin gets this stand essentially for cost. It will pay for the refurbishment and any costs incurred by NASA, but other than that NASA is not charging them a fee.

While I strongly support the concept of the government helping private enterprise, this deal has some aspects that concern me. Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do. If Blue Origin’s work will make this stand useful again for everyone else, great. If instead NASA is essentially giving it its own private test stand for practically free, then not so great.

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8 comments

  • wodun

    Bezos is well on his way to capturing government.

  • mpthompson

    Is it just a coincidence that this would be a good way for Bezos to ingratiate himself with a certain Senator from that state?

  • mpthompson: Ya think? Heh, Bezos has already done this previously with the decision to build a major manufacturing facility in Alabama.

    It appears to me more and more that Bezos has decided to go full hog for government work, making Blue Origin an upgraded version of ULA.

  • Dick Eagleson

    It looks as though Blue intends to follow in SpaceX’s footsteps by testing each engine as it comes off the production line. With a suitable test stand available in the same vicinity as the factory, Blue’s logistics will be simpler than SpaceX’s. I think that’s pretty much the extent of what’s going on here.

    So I think you are taking an overly jaundiced view of this transaction. NASA comes out ahead even if the “lease payment” is zero as the agency will no longer be responsible for site security and maintenance. The private sector taking over disused NASA infrastructure is exactly what we should be encouraging to the maximum possible extent.

    As for the “sweetheartness” of the deal, I suspect it’s not greatly different than the deals already struck between NASA and several launch providers, including Blue, who have taken over formerly derelict launch complexes at Kennedy/Canaveral.

    Anent test stands, in particular, SpaceX, during Raptor development, made use of a long-disused facility at Stennis for a time.

    Given that the Marshall facility was built for the Saturn V program, Blue is the only likely lessor for it. SpaceX will be production-qualifying Raptors at McGregor as it has long done for Merlins. ULA is using Blue’s engine for Vulcan so the Marshall facility will have a sort of second user when it gets back into operation anyway. NGIS’s new rocket uses solids in the lower stages. The only other outfit – for now, at least – building a big engine is AR and it already has facilities at Stennis to test AR-1.

    It’s not impossible some additional player may come along at some point with another big engine project – perhaps one of today’s smallsat launcher companies when it “grows up.” But that will be, at the soonest, still years down the road. NASA is under no obligation to pass up a deal in the here-and-now for the sake of some hypothetical future player who cannot, right now, even be identified.

  • Dick Eagleson: Yeah, I think you’re right and I am being too cynical. At the same time, I don’t like what my instincts are telling me about Blue Origin and the direction it’s going. And I have learned it is very wise to listen to my instincts.

  • pzatchok

    Wasn’t Blue Origin “requested” by the government to build a ship similar to the falcon 9?
    And received a 500 million dollar “loan” from the government.

    It looks like someone is expecting the traditional launchers to not be around much longer and want a second cheap re-usable launcher available.

    Or just want BO to at least design and fly the first one so the company can then be bought out by one of the traditional launchers.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Mr. Z.

    I share your notion that Blue and Bezos are looking to get tight with the government. I also agree no long-term good is likely to come of that.

    I’m not sure how much “good” it’s likely to do even in the short term. Bezos has gotten as tight as he can reasonably get with the Alabama Mafia, but I still think Blue is going to be one of the down-selected companies in the USAF’s needlessly hurried LSA phase 2. On the merits, I think Blue should not only be selected, but that the whole selection process should be delayed two years as Blue has requested, but I don’t think Bezos has bought enough influence with enough people to make that happen. ULA is still more important to the Alabama Mafia than Blue is. If, as I am virtually certain, it’s the two incumbent suppliers that are selected, Bezos could still get his foot in that particular door by doing an end-run around the Alabama Mafia via buying ULA from Boeing and LockMart.

    pzatchok,

    Blue was one of three companies “requested” by the U.S. government – USAF, specifically – to build a new vehicle that could vie with F9 and FH for USAF launch missions. Blue was also granted – not “loaned” – $500 million to do this. Two other would-be vendors got even more. Thing is, if USAF goes through with its plans to down-select to just two providers quite soon, Blue is unlikely to be one of them and that notional $500 million goes poof!

    The government, as usual, is of at least two minds about what it wants. A second reasonably priced and reusable launch vehicle would be good for the government, long-term, but in the short term, there are a lot of people in USAF and the Congress who would prefer to keep ULA going instead of getting a better and cheaper new vehicle.

    Regardless of how all that plays out, though, BO isn’t going to be snapped up by “one of the traditional launchers.” Bezos isn’t going to sell Blue. He’d be far likelier, in fact, to make an offer to the two parents of ULA, Boeing and LockMart, to take their problematic child off their hands. Both, for differing reasons, might well be inclined to take a suitable such offer. Even if only one, but not the other, sold its ULA stake to Bezos, it would make a lot of difference in how Blue would be viewed in government circles – especially the Alabama Mafia.

  • Edward

    NASA has been partnering with various companies and universities for decades. I’m not quite sure what they mean by “partner,” but that information sharing is clearly part of it, as in a company that partners with NASA may not have the data that it collects as proprietary as it would if the company did its own work independently. It may be that a partnering organization can gain access to information that was once gathered by other partners, but the price may be that its own information may eventually be shared, too. As an example of such data sharing, the data gathered by experiments on the ISS, even by private experimenters, becomes public domain after five years.

    At the bottom of the article is a link to NASA’s partnership pages, which has a link to the following video, used as an enticement for partnerships with NASA, presenting advantages that NASA offers.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2uRBfj75IQY

    It is possible that Blue Origin will not pay a direct financial price for using the test stand but could give up data that would otherwise remain proprietary. Searching the NASA Partnerships pages, I found this is in the Space Act Agreement Guide, though it seems to be more concerned with protecting proprietary data than disseminating it (SAA = Space Act Agreement):
    https://nodis3.gsfc.nasa.gov/NPD_attachments/N_AII_1050_001D.pdf#page=60&zoom=100,0,685
    2.2.10.1.2. Proprietary Data Exchange Expected (Proprietary Exchange Clause)

    The Proprietary Data Exchange Expected clause provides for the identification of specific background, third party proprietary, and government controlled data, if any, that the parties expect will be, or may need to be, exchanged under the SAA in a separate document outside of the SAA and addresses permissible use of all such data.

    I once talked to someone about being a consultant, and he emphasized that, on each job, a consultant should learn more than he teaches; it makes the consultant more valuable over time. NASA may be working along these same lines as a consultant to its partners.

    Robert asked: “Is Blue Origin going to be the only one allowed to use this test stand? If so, it appears that NASA is favoring Blue Origin over all other private companies, something it should not do.

    The above referenced document covers this case, too:
    https://nodis3.gsfc.nasa.gov/NPD_attachments/N_AII_1050_001D.pdf#page=50&zoom=100,0,152
    Section: 2.2.8. NONEXCLUSIVITY

    Section 841(c) of the NTAA requires that SAAs be issued on a nonexclusive basis “to the greatest extent practicable” and imposes public announcement and competition requirements for any “exclusive” SAAs. As a general rule, NASA’s SAAs should be on a nonexclusive basis, that is, all non-government parties should have equal access to NASA resources. This helps avoid any appearance of NASA favoritism of one private party over another. Where exclusive arrangements are necessary, competition must be used to the greatest extent practicable to select the Partner as a means of ensuring equal access to NASA facilities and avoiding the appearance of favoritism. Guidance on determining when an SAA is exclusive and use of competitive procedures can be found in the Partnership Guide, Section II.A.1, Fairness, Transparency, and the Use of the Competitive Procedures.

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