No manned New Shepard flights in 2019


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In an interview with CNBC, Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed that the first manned flights of New Shepard will not take place in 2019, as previously predicted.

Smith: We were planning on this year; unfortunately, it’s very unlikely we’re going to get in this year. We need a few more flights to make sure that we’re all comfortable with the verification. We hold ourselves to very, very high standards here, we’re never going to fly until we’re absolutely ready. I think we have a very, very good amount of confidence around the system itself, I think it is working very, very well. But we have to go look at all the analysis, and then convince ourselves that we’re ready to go. … So it probably will be next year.

This statement confirms what Smith said in late September. However, though he says they need to do a few more unmanned test flights, they have not done one since May, suggesting there was some issue during that last flight that they aren’t telling us about.

The interview overall contains little concrete information, and in fact suggests that the company’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, is likely not going to meet its 2021 launch target. When asked when he expects their rocket factory in Huntsville to begin building 40 engines a year, he said, “when we are at-rate and flying, so in ’22 and ’23. We are opening the factory there this coming first quarter.”

That 2021 date was a delay of a year from the original goal of 2020. That they won’t be opening their rocket factory until 2020, and won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023, suggests this entire schedule is out the window. I will not be surprised if there are no New Glenn flights before 2023.

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8 comments

  • Diane Wilson

    Everything is so very, very good. The amount of hedging in that statement is telling. He might as well be quoting the white rabbit, pulling a pocket watch from his waistcoat and saying, I shall be so very late.

    The question not addressed is the BE-4 engines for ULA. When the factory finally opens, who has priority for the first BE-4 engines off the line?

  • David M. Cook

    I think both Bezos & Branson are playing the ”corporate game“, building just enough hardware to attract investors but never actually doing what they say they will. This allows the corporate officers to live well on the investors money while promising the moon (which they never deliver!) B & B get to talk about their ”space programs“, and the lack of progress keeps any bad news away! I have zero confidence any real passengers will ever fly on either ship. The best they can hope for is some kind of fat government contract to do some research in orbit. These people are NOT serious about developing space travel!

  • Diane Wilson

    I’m not sure that New Shepard is an accurate indicator of Blue’s progress. My gut feeling is that it is a orphaned project. It’s a dead-end technologically, and almost certainly a money-loser even if they do eventually carry a few passengers. Blue learned a little about propulsive landings, but not enough to really get a New Glenn down from orbital launch. So Blue has moved on.

    Still. “Step by step, ferociously”? There’s only one company moving ferociously in the space business.

  • Calvin Dodge

    Tired: “Which will go orbital first – Starship, or SLS?”
    Wired: “Which will go orbital first – Starship, or New Glenn?”

  • Diane Wilson

    If Blue Origin continues their naming pattern of “first American to ____”, then after New Armstrong, there will be a rocket named for the first American on Mars: “New Musk”.

  • Mike Borgelt

    Branson made a bad decision going with the Rutan design and a worse one going with the hybrid engine. Con artist.
    Bezos – no idea. Doesn’t have a clear goal beyond “having my private space program”. New Shepard seems a bad design too. Why rely on a parachute for landing? That’s for emergencies. The whole ship including any passengers should land in one piece. We don’t toss airplane passengers out as the aircraft flies over its destination.
    I’m afraid both are duds. It is up to Musk alone. It’s just him.
    Frightening.

  • It seems Mr Musk was spot on with his famous “unicorns dancing in the flame duct” line in 2013 when talking about Blue Origin having an orbital rocket ready within 5 years:
    “[Blue Origin] has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development,” Musk wrote. “If they do somehow show up in the next 5 years with a vehicle qualified to NASA’s human rating standards that can dock with the Space Station, which is what Pad 39A is meant to do, we will gladly accommodate their needs. Frankly, I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”
    https://spacenews.com/37389musk-calls-out-blue-origin-ula-for-phony-blocking-tactic-on-shuttle-pad/

  • Edward

    To Robert’s point that there have been no New Shepard flights since May, this suggests to me that they either do not have enough paying sounding-rocket experimental payloads to economically launch another rocket, which is a disturbing thought, or they are concerned about some fundamental problem that needs correction before flying even experimental payloads.

    Mike Borgelt brings up some interesting points. I have a couple of thoughts on some of those points.

    Branson made a bad decision going with the Rutan design and a worse one going with the hybrid engine.

    The basic Rutan design clearly can do the job required. The hybrid engine is the problem. A bad decision would have been made if advanced calculations could have predicted that the hybrid engine would cause vibration problems, otherwise the decision wouldn’t be so bad as the consequences are. I suspect that this prediction could have been made. The next question is whether the hybrid engine was necessary for Rutan’s design or whether another engine would have also worked. If the hybrid engine was the only one that would work for the basic design, then the decision to go with the design turned out to be bad.

    I believe that the bad decision occurred when the vibration issue became known and the decision was to not redesign the spacecraft with an engine that would avoid this problem. If I recall correctly, this decision-point was more than a decade ago, so an updated design with a different engine could possibly have been operational and flying customers by now.

    New Shepard seems a bad design too. Why rely on a parachute for landing? That’s for emergencies. The whole ship including any passengers should land in one piece. We don’t toss airplane passengers out as the aircraft flies over its destination.

    This depends. Landing in two pieces may allow for one or the other part to be reused faster. If they have different turnaround times, then a two part spacecraft makes sense. In addition, landing with the passenger section attached would require getting a gantry to the landed ship in order to disembark the passengers.

    The parachutes makes the landing of the capsule much easier to design and perform. It is smaller and much more capable of surviving this kind of landing than the launch rocket portion, so the launch rocket is better under propulsive landing. For a system that is for emergencies, parachutes have been in wide use as a standard landing method for six decades. Of all the manned spacecraft, only the Space Shuttle did not bring people back down on parachutes (although it used one on the runway to reduce wear on the brakes).

    I’m afraid both are duds.

    Depending upon how serious they are, they may surprise us yet. If they do surprise us then I expect them to have terrible revenue trouble as soon as SpaceX’s Starship starts to take tourists to orbit at a lower price. If they are going to surprise us then they need to do it soon. So far, however, they both seem to be undergoing year for year schedule slip, meaning that they are not getting closer to operations.

    It is up to Musk alone. It’s just him.

    Do not forget the other possibilities that are under development.

    Boeing is working on a commercial manned spacecraft. If this works well, then they may desire to compete with SpaceX in other areas of launch and space operations.

    Sierra Nevada is developing an unmanned space plane for resupplying the ISS. Their intention is to turn this space plane into a manned version, and they also may have incentive to compete in other areas of space operations, but they do not yet have the income to perform a rapid development program.

    Lagging farther behind is Reaction Engines in the UK. Their air breathing rocket engine may allow for competitive rockets, but they do not have the income to perform a rapid development program.

    ULA is working on ACES, an in-space tug and unmanned vehicle for orbital operations. Their vision is for a thousand people living and working in space in a self-sustaining economy within the next three decades, and they are eager to be part of that future.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uxftPmpt7aA (7 minutes)

    I don’t think that Bezos & Branson are playing a game so much as have too much money. One of the important differences between them and Musk is that Musk remains at great risk of running out of money before he can get his next important space product to market. Bezos & Branson can afford to keep throwing money at their projects. The real question is how determined they are. Both are working on unmanned orbital capability, not just suborbital tourism. either or both could eventually choose to develop manned orbital capability.

    Getting each product operational earlier rather than later means that SpaceX generates a new source of income, a new revenue stream, that allows for the development of the next product, preferably one that gets the company closer to starting one or more settlements on Mars. SpaceX needed paying customers by about 2010, otherwise they would run out of money, so rapid development was essential from the beginning (having three failed development launches only to realize that the small rocket market would not sustain them was also a problem). NASA’s COTS became an important customer for them. Which raises the problem that Kistler had.

    Kistler tried to develop a rocket, but he did not have funding for rapid development capability. Kistler won a slot for the initial round of COTS development funding, but could not meet the first milestone of finding outside investment. Musk and SpaceX did. Orbital Sciences (now part of Northrup Grumman) took the now-defunct Kistler’s place in the COTS development.

    So why don’t I include Northrup Grumman in the list of other possible competitors for space? To use David M. Cook’s words, above: I think that Northrup Grumman is “NOT serious about developing space travel.”

    There are also some small launch companies that may eventually get into the larger space travel business.

    Although Bezos & Branson have taken their time with their suborbital tourism systems, they seem to be more serious about orbital capabilities. We will have to see how they fare with those systems.

    I don’t think that it is just up to Musk alone, but I think that he will be the one to beat for the next couple of decades. As long as SpaceX continues to challenge the rest of the industry, then we should see reductions in costs as other companies strive to keep up. This is an achievable task, because Musk has chosen to ignore some efficiencies in order to lower the cost of access to space sooner rather than later. The companies that next develop low-cost rockets will likely take advantage of these ignored efficiencies, and maybe more, in order to finally beat out Musk’s SpaceX.

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