What is wrong at Blue Origin?

Link here. The article by Eric Berger depends on many anonymous sources at Blue Origin, and suggests that the central reason the first launch of the company’s orbital New Glenn rocket has been delayed until 2022 at the earliest is because Jeff Bezos decided to have them build its biggest iteration first, rather than take smaller steps upward to that version.

[I]nstead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos ultimately opted to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one former Blue Origin employee said.

Instead of crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to begin sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of building such a large rocket are big enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company needs to recover it from the outset. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers will be expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.

The decision to skip the “walk” part of the company’s development has cost Blue Origin dearly, sources say. The company’s engineering teams, composed of smart and talented people, are struggling with mighty technical challenges. And there are only so many lessons that can be learned from New Shepard—the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have very nearly 4 million.

While I am certain there is some truth to this, the article also appears to me to be a sales job for Bob Smith, the CEO that Bezos hired in 2017 to run Blue Origin. There have been many rumors that he takes a more traditional approach to rocket development, which means no failures can be allowed and must be designed out from the beginning. In fact, the article hints at this, but then spins it to Smith’s favor.

Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to become more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble new-space startup. But from Smith’s perspective, he’s trying to implement a culture transformation, from a hobby-shop atmosphere to that of a major aerospace contractor that can go out and win major NASA and Defense Department contracts.

The history of the past five years confirms the employees’ perspective, not Smith’s. Before he arrived Blue Origin was getting things built and launched, at a fast pace. After he took over that pace slowed to crawl, in all its projects.

In fact, I would say that Blue Origin’s problems really come as much from Smith as Bezos. When Bezos might have pushed to go big with New Glenn, Smith should have pushed back, and insisted they build the smaller version first. Instead, he went ahead, while also apparently changing the company so that it functioned more like the older big space contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) that can’t get anything built quickly for a reasonable cost.

None of this bodes well for Blue Origin or New Glenn. Unless a massive management change is instituted, the company’s future does not look as bright as it should, considering the amount of money (billions) that Bezos is committing to it. All the money in the world will do you nothing if what you want to do is poorly planned and badly executed.

First launch of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket delayed to ’22

Capitalism in space: In what had increasingly appeared likely in recent months, Blue Origin today announced that it is delaying the first launch of its orbital New Glenn rocket from late this year to sometime in ’22.

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.

Personally I think this excuse is absurd. Jeff Bezos has been investing about $1 billion per year in Blue Origin. Moreover, in its announcement the company claimed it has invested $2.5 billion of that money in developing New Glenn. This is almost as much as SpaceX has raised to build Starship/Super Heavy, which is in development and in only about two years has already produced multiple prototypes and two test flights. Moreover, SpaceX developed Falcon Heavy for about a half billion dollars, and did it in less than seven years.

New Glenn has been in development for more than four years, and we have yet to even see it assembled in any form at all. The loss of that government military contract should have made no difference if Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin were really serious about building this rocket. He has given the company more than enough investment capital to get it done. They have just not delivered so far.

If I was Bezos, I would be taking a very hard look at the management at Blue Origin, with the intent to make some significant changes.

Jeff Bezos to step down as Amazon CEO

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos announced today that he is stepping down as Amazon CEO to focus his efforts more on his other political and space-related activities.

From the email he sent to Amazon employees:

As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” Bezos wrote. “I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have

I think this quote from the story above however explains a great deal about Blue Origin in the past three years:

Bezos is said to devote one day a week to Blue Origin (reportedly, Wednesdays), plus at least $1 billion worth of the annual proceeds from his sales of Amazon shares. He’s presided over high-profile publicity events including the unveiling of the Blue Moon lunar lander. But when it comes to the day-to-day business, he handed that responsibility over to veteran aerospace executive Bob Smith, who became Blue Origin’s CEO in 2017.

It was around 2017 that the pace of Blue Origin’s effort seemed to slow to a crawl. It was also about that time that the company became dedicated to becoming a government contractor, doing whatever the government required even if it meant that development of their New Glenn rocket would slow (which it did).

Whether this action will increase Bezos’ participation with Blue Origin however is unclear. In the last year he has seemed more interested in leftist environmental causes and leftist politics. We shall have to wait and see.

NASA delays lunar lander contract award

NASA, now under the control of the Biden administration, has quietly delayed by at least two months the contract award to two companies to build manned lunar landers for its Artemis program.

With short funding from Congress and a new administration focused on more pressing national issues, the move was expected.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, a team of aerospace giants led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Leidos-owned Dynetics won a combined $967 million in seed funding from NASA last year to develop rivaling concepts for a human lunar landing system. It’s the space agency’s first effort to spend money on astronaut moon landers since the Apollo program in the 1970s.

Last Wednesday, NASA told the three contractors that an extension to their development contracts “will be required,” picking a new award date of April 30th. Under the Trump administration’s timeline, the agency had planned to pick two of the three bidders in late February, giving a stamp of approval for two systems that would inevitably carry humans to the moon.

This delay would likely have occurred under Trump as well, mainly because Congress only appropriated less than a third of the money needed for this Artemis program.

However, under Biden it was guaranteed. A major review is about to happen, designed not to kill Artemis but to slow it down appreciable. Congress likes the pork Artemis produces, but is wholly uninterested in it actually flying any dangerous missions. I suspect Biden will agree. The focus will once again shift back to Gateway, making any lunar landing require it so that it must be built first. Such a shift will guarantee that no American manned missions to the surface of the Moon will occur before ’30, but also allow the spending of gobs of money building a small lunar station that will only be occupied for short periods.

The big loser here, to my mind, is Jeff Bezos. His company, Blue Origin, was building the descent portion of the lunar lander, with all other portions built by his big space partners, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper. Not only is most of the other work by these partners more easily shifted to other uses related to Gateway, but those companies already have plenty of government contracts. As far as I can remember, Blue Origin has no other big government deals, with its New Glenn having been rejected by the military, and its lunar descent technology unneeded until there is a lunar landing, and I expect that to be significantly delayed.

For the past four years Bezos has clearly wanted to make Blue Origin a new big space contractor. Right now it appears that effort has failed wholly.

Dynetics will also lose out big, as they are a new company and can ill afford losing a contract here.

SpaceX will likely be hurt the least. Not getting any money for designing Starship to land on the Moon will do little to slow its development. Starship is almost completely privately funded, and does not need NASA money to get built.

Blue Origin reveals full throttle long duration test of its BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos today revealed that Blue Origin has successfully completed a full throttle long duration test of its BE-4 engine to be used by both its New Glenn Rocket and ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.

The company has delivered two engines to ULA designed for ground testing, and says it will deliver soon the flight ready engines for Vulcan’s first launch later this year. Blue Origin also needs to get flight ready engines finished this year for New Glenn, which is also supposed to make it inaugural flight in ’21.

Personally, I think both Blue Origin and ULA are cutting it close. I will not be surprised if this tight schedule means that the first launches of both rockets get delayed into ’22.

Nonetheless, it is great news that the BE-4 appears to finally working as planned after what appeared to be problems for the past few years.

SpaceX and Amazon in cat-fight over internet satellite constellations

Capitalism in space: Even as SpaceX is rolling out the internet service from its growing Starlink satellite constellation while Amazon’s own Kuiper constellation languishes in development, the two companies are in a battle over the orbits of their respective constellations.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter on Tuesday, as his company works to persuade Federal Communications Commission officials that it should allow SpaceX to move some of its Starlink satellites to lower altitudes than originally planned.

Jeff Bezos’ Amazon has been among companies that have disputed SpaceX’s request, on the grounds that the modification would interfere with other satellites.

“It does not serve the public to hamstring Starlink today for an Amazon satellite system that is at best several years away from operation,” Musk said in a tweet.

Amazon responded to Musk’s comment in a statement to CNBC. “The facts are simple. We designed the Kuiper System to avoid interference with Starlink, and now SpaceX wants to change the design of its system. Those changes not only create a more dangerous environment for collisions in space, but they also increase radio interference for customers. Despite what SpaceX posts on Twitter, it is SpaceX’s proposed changes that would hamstring competition among satellite systems. It is clearly in SpaceX’s interest to smother competition in the cradle if they can, but it is certainly not in the public’s interest,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

SpaceX in its own response to the FCC has noted “that Amazon representatives have had ’30 meetings to oppose SpaceX’ but ‘no meetings to authorize its own system,’ arguing that the technology giant is attempting ‘to stifle competition.'”

Both companies appear to have a point. Amazon is planning its system under an agreed-to arrangement where its orbits would not conflict with SpaceX’s. To permit SpaceX to change the deal and expand its orbital territory into Amazon’s threatens their system.

At the same time, that Amazon has been so slow to launch its system is something the FCC will not take kindly to. Companies get FCC licensing approval on the condition that they deliver within a certain time frame. Amazon appears to be taking a bit too much time, and SpaceX is trying to take advantage of this fact.

I suspect the FCC will deny SpaceX’s request, but will also tell Amazon that it had better start launching its satellites soon, or else the FCC will change its mind and give SpaceX that orbital territory.

Overall, the slowness of Amazon to launch Kuiper seems to fit the operational pace of Jeff Bezos’ other space company, Blue Origin. Lots of talk, but relatively little action. At some point the talk has to stop and Bezos’ companies have got to start delivering.

Space Force ends development contracts with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman

The Space Force, having chosen SpaceX and ULA as its sole launch providers, officially ended on December 31, 2020, its rocket development contracts with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.

The Air Force awarded Launch Service Agreements to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance. These were six-year public-private partnerships where both the government and the contractors agreed to invest in rocket development and infrastructure required to compete in the National Security Space Launch program.

The plan from day one was to discontinue the LSAs with companies that did not win a National Security Space Launch procurement contract. Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman lost to ULA and SpaceX, which were selected in August 2020. The Space and Missile Systems Center confirmed in a statement to SpaceNews that the LSAs with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman ended in Dec. 31, 2020.

From October 2018 through December 2020, Blue Origin was paid $255.5 million. The original six-year agreement was worth $500 million. Northrop Grumman got $531.7 million over that same period, nearly two-thirds of the total value of the LSA which was $792 million.

This whole deal stinks to high heaven. First, it never made any sense for the military to restrict bidding on future launches to just two companies. Such a restrictions smells of a cartel deal designed to play favorites, something the government should not do. It also ends up costing the government more, as it limits competition.

Second, the money handed out sure looks like nice pay-offs to all these big companies, designed to pay company salaries rather than real design work. SpaceX chose not to take it, because it did not want to be beholden to the military’s bureaucracy in how it developed Starship/Super Heavy. That choice has proven wise, as the deal slowed development of both Blue Origin’s New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan rockets by at least a year, while SpaceX Starship development has moved forward far quicker.

Moreover, its seems very inappropriate for ULA to still be getting this government cash while SpaceX does not. In truth, neither should get a dime unless they actually sign a contract to launch something for the Space Force. Otherwise it is just a form of kickback and a misuse of the taxpayer’s money.

Not that my complaining here will change anything. The big aerospace industry has been addicted to these kind of government payoffs for decades, and apparently will continue to be so addicted for the foreseeable future.

Blue Origin aims for first manned suborbital flight in April

Capitalism in space: According to this CNBC report, Blue Origin is now targeting its first manned suborbital flight of New Shepard by April, after completing one more unmanned test flight in late February.

Blue Origin on Thursday completed the fourteenth test flight of its New Shepard rocket booster and capsule. Called NS-14, the successful test flight featured the debut of a new booster and an upgraded capsule. Beyond the upgrades, CNBC has learned that NS-14 also marked one of the last remaining steps before Blue Origin flies its first crew to space.

The flight was the first of two “stable configuration” test flights, people familiar with Blue Origin’s plans told CNBC. Stable configuration means that the company plans to avoid making major changes between this flight and the next. Additionally, those people said that Blue Origin aims to launch the second test flight within six weeks, or by late February, and the first crewed flight six weeks after that, or by early April.

We shall see. The sources are anonymous, and thus not entirely reliable. Furthermore, this schedule is far faster than the pace that Blue Origin has traditionally set.

At the same time, the competition to get those first suborbital passengers in space is heating up, as Virgin Galactic is rumored to have a somewhat similar schedule. Moreover, the first entirely private manned orbital tourist mission by SpaceX is presently set for October. If these two suborbital companies fail to begin manned flights before SpaceX their ability to garner customers will be sorely damaged.

Live stream of New Shepard flight: Successful flight

UPDATE: The flight has completed successfully, with the capsule reaching a height of about 66 miles, or about 107 kilometers. The booster was doing its first flight, with the capsule doing its eighth flight.

Original post:
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Capitalism in space: I have embedded the live stream of today’s New Shepard suborbital flight by Blue Origin. The countdown is just under T-19 as I write this.

Watch if you want, though you will have deal with Blue Origin’s pr, including their somewhat noxious anchor, who spends much of her narration telling us how wonderful and breath-taking and amazing everything is, no matter what happens.
» Read more

Blue Origin announces next New Shepard flight for January 14th

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today announced that it will launch its fourteenth New Shepard flight tomorrow, at 9:45 am (Central).

This will be the eighth flight for this particular New Shepard capsule.

The link above takes you to their live stream, which will go live 30 minutes before launch. From the press release:

For this mission, the crew capsule will be outfitted with upgrades for the astronaut experience as the program nears human space flight. The upgrades include improvements to environmental features such as acoustics and temperature regulation inside the capsule, crew display panels, and speakers with a microphone and push-to-talk button at each seat. The mission will also test a number of astronaut communication and safety alert systems. The capsule will be outfitted with six seats, including one occupied by Mannequin Skywalker. Also inside the capsule, Blue Origin’s nonprofit Club for the Future will fly more than 50,000 postcards to space and back from students around the globe.

The last flight New Shepard flight was in October. The company had earlier promised manned flights would begin in 2020, but that did not happen. Today’s announcement makes no mention of later flights or future plans.

While I do expect Blue Origin will eventually fly humans on a New Shepard capsule, more and more it looks like it will be more a public relations operation for the company rather than a real profit center. They might make money on it, but the focus of space tourism is shifting to orbital flights. Doing a suborbital flight will still be cool, but it will no longer have the pizazz that it would have had, had the flight been two, three, five, or ten years ago. This shift I think is reflected in the slow pace of New Shepard launches in the past three years.

First flightworthy BE-4 engine delivery now expected in summer ’21

Capitalism in space: Tory Bruno, the CEO of ULA, revealed yesterday that Blue Origin will finally deliver two flightworthy BE-4 engines for ULA’s Vulcan rocket this coming summer.

ULA, the Pentagon’s top launch contractor for national security satellites, had initially expected the shipment in 2020 for a debut flight in early 2021, but this was delayed by development hurdles.

The installation of Blue Origin’s reusable BE-4 engines into ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket will keep it on track for the debut launch of a moon lander dubbed Peregrine at the end of 2021, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said. The Vulcan rocket has won a slate of key U.S. defense missions through 2027.

“That is now our expectation, that Peregrine will go to space in the 4th quarter of 2021,” Bruno told reporters during a call on Thursday.

Peregrine is a commercial lunar lander being built by Astrobotic for NASA.

More information here.

It appears that ULA thinks the long delay in engine development and delivery from Blue Origin will not delay the planned first launch of Vulcan later in ’21. It appears their long range plan to recover and reuse these engines has caused them to design Vulcan so that they can easily swap out engines, which will allow them to complete that new rocket’s development with the test engines that Blue Origin has already provided, and then switch engines and launch within months.

During Bruno’s press briefing he also noted that they have done a thorough refurbish of the Delta launchpads and have instituted a new policy requiring regular launchpad dress rehearsals, in order to make sure the series of problems that delayed the launch of a Delta-4 Heavy earlier this year will not reoccur.

Bezos sells another $3 billion of Amazon shares

Jeff Bezos continues to accelerate his sale of his Amazon stock, selling another $3 billion this week.

In August, Bezos offloaded more than $3.1 billion of Amazon shares, after selling more than $4.1 billion worth of shares in February. The sales this week bring his total cash out in 2020 to more than $10.2 billion so far, which is a notable jump from 2019, when Bezos sold $2.8 billion worth of shares.

While Bezos had originally said these sales were for financing his space company, Blue Origin, it now appears that the bulk of this new money is aimed at funding environmental political organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund.

Blue Origin pinpoints problem with BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno, Blue Origin has identified and fixed the issue with the turbopumps of its new BE-4 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.

Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Two of these large engines—each providing about 25-percent more thrust than the RS-25s used on the Space Shuttle—will power each Vulcan rocket.

Here’s what I think happened: Blue Origin struggled to fix the problem for several years. ULA, suspecting problems, got increasingly impatient at the lack of delivery of an operational engine, and threatened to dump the BE-4 in favor of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine unless it was given a test engine to analyze. Blue Origin finally complied in July, and very quickly ULA pinpointed the problem and the solution.

While this is good news for the development of both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, it does not speak well for the development team at Blue Origin. Nonetheless, the engine is always the big hurdle for designing a rocket, and that hurdle has now been passed.

During Bruno’s interview he also said that ULA still intends to recover and reuse these engines when it flies its Vulcan rocket, but gave no timeline for when that might happen. Initially, and probably for several years at least, expect those engines to be expendable and tossed into the ocean with each flight.

Blue Origin successfully completes another unmanned suborbital test flight of New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today successfully completed the seventh unmanned suborbital test flight for this particular New Shepard spacecraft/booster, landing both with no issues.

After a ten-month lull in flights following the previous test of Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard launch system, the company conducted a launch and landing of the fully reusable booster and capsule duo. Following weather-related and technical issues during a window late in September, the flight took place from the company’s West Texas facility — near Van Horn, Texas — on Tuesday morning at just after 8:35 AM CDT / 13:35 UTC.

This mission, also known as NS-13, saw 12 commercial payloads launched to the edge of space and back, including a NASA-developed sensor suite that could enable future lunar landing craft to perform safe and precise touchdowns on the surface of the Moon as part of NASA’s Artemis exploration program. As in the name, the NS-13 mission was the 13th test flight of the New Shepard launch system, and the first such flight of 2020.

What happens next with New Shepard remains unclear. Blue Origin officials had previously said they would do three test flights this year, with the last manned. Now it appears that manned flight will slip into ’21, but will use a new spacecraft/booster, the fourth built during New Shepard’s development.

I have embedded the video of the flight below the fold, cued to begin just before launch.
» Read more

Blue Origin scrubs New Shepard flight today

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today scrubbed the first New Shepard flight in ten months.

From the company:

We’ve detected a potential issue with the power supply to the experiments. Launch is scrubbed for today. New launch target forthcoming.

Ten months since their last flight, and the power supply to the experiments has a problem the day of the launch? Sorry if I sound harsh, but that does not speak well for the company’s quality control systems.

New Shepard test flight set for tomorrow

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has scheduled a New Shepard test flight set for tomorrow morning at 10 am (Central), the first test flight in ten months.

This will be the seventh flight of this particular New Shepard spacecraft, the thirteenth overall for the program.

In March the company’s CEO had promised three flights by the end of 2020, with the last manned. The press release above howeveronly mentions that tomorrow’s test flight is the first of two, both now emphasizing how they will be flying payloads testing technology for lunar landings. No mention is made of a later manned mission.

It seems increasingly that Blue Origin is abandoning its suborbital space tourism business. If not, they sure don’t seem very enthusiastic about it any longer. Instead, they appear to be hyping New Shepard as a testbed for their effort to develop the manned lunar lander for NASA.

That same March update from the CEO had also said they would be initiating commercial production of their BE-4 rocket engine this year. All we have had so far is delivery of one testbed engine — not flightworthy — to ULA. ULA soon revealed there are problems with the engine.

All in all, Blue Origin is becoming less and less impressive, as time passes. Their suborbital tourism project appears to be abandoned. Their rocket engine has problems. And their New Glenn orbital rocket appears stalled.

All they have right now is their development contract with NASA to build a manned lunar lander, and in that case Blue Origin is only a minor player, even if the company is listed as the lead contractor. Their big partners (Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper) will build the bulk of the lander, should NASA finally get the project financed by Congress.

The company’s failure to deliver so far is a true shame, as the company has ample finances, backed by Jeff Bezos’ billions.

ULA’s Vulcan rocket: problems with Blue Origin’s rocket engine

Based on a detailed update today at NASASpaceFlight.com on the status of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, it appears that while everything is proceeding as scheduled for a 2021 launch debut, the big issue that might cause a delay is Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage.

Speaking to the Denver Business Journal yesterday, ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted an ongoing issue with BE-4’s turbopumps but voiced his confidence that the issue would soon be resolved and that it would not impact Vulcan’s schedule at this time.

…Development of the BE-4 has long been seen as the critical path for Vulcan. ULA exercised an option within the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 award proposal and bid Atlas V as a backup vehicle for Vulcan in case the latter ran into development or certification issues.

When asked when ULA would have to inform the Space Force of its desire to switch one of the first awarded NSSL missions from Vulcan to Atlas V under a purely hypothetical BE-4 or Vulcan issue, Mr. Peller [VP of Major Development for ULA] did not comment directly, instead affirming ULA’s confidence that all of their NSSL missions would fly on Vulcan. [emphasis mine]

From the Denver Business Journal article:

Blue Origin is still troubleshooting the 75,000-horsepower pumps that bring fuel to the BE-4’s main combustion chamber, Bruno said, adding that he’s confident the issues will soon be solved. “There’s very little technical risk,” he said. “It isn’t easy, but we know we can do it.” [emphasis mine]

This is the first public admission I’ve seen anywhere of a specific problem with the BE-4 engine. It also suggests strongly that the problem has been long-standing, and has not yet been solved.

Both articles also make it clear that ULA is prepared to continue using both the Atlas 5 rocket and the Russian engines (that the BE-4 is supposed to replace) until 2027, if necessary.

While it could very well be that the BE-4’s turbopump issues are on the way to being solved and there will be no delays, the careful wording by Bruno and his head of development strongly suggests that they are aware of an issue and are trying to deflect press interest in it. In fact, the timing of this revelation, only six weeks after Blue Origin delivered to ULA its first BE-4 engine (a test version not flightworthy), suggests that ULA has only now become aware of the issue, and is now working to help solve it.

Stay tuned. I suspect all will become very clear within the next few months.

Blue Origin-led partnership delivers lunar lander mockup to NASA

Capitalism in space: The Blue Origin-led partnership, which calls itself “the National Team,” has delivered to the Johnson Space Center a full scale mock-up of the manned lunar lander it is building for NASA.

The full-sized, but low-fidelity, mockup includes both the descent element, developed by Blue Origin, and ascent element, built by Lockheed Martin, and stands more than 12 meters high.

The companies developed the mockup to allow NASA astronauts and engineers to study the layout of the vehicle, including positioning of various components, and get feedback while the lander is still in an early stage of development.

While providing this mock-up to NASA for design review makes sense, I must say that I yawned when I saw the string of overly excited new reports about it from almost every mainstream news outlet. It appears that though Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin have become very skilled at delivering nothing but mock-ups and promises over the past few years, both have also become very skilled at getting the press pumped up with each new mock-up and promise.

More and more does Bezos and Blue Origin remind me of Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic, making promises and holding spectacular fake press events, but actually achieving little. I could be wrong, but I can’t get that similarity out of my head. Blue Origin was founded in 2000, before SpaceX, and after more than twenty years it has yet to fly anything commercially. Work on its New Shepard reusable suborbital rocket has apparently stalled, without ever flying humans. Its main rocket engine, the BE-4, is taking years to develop, with only test versions built, none flightworthy. And New Glenn, its orbital rocket, remains a fantasy.

I truly hope my cynicism here is unfounded. I want Blue Origin to succeed. I just wish they’d finally do something.

Air Force terminates development contracts to ULA, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman

In awarding ULA and SpaceX exclusive launch rights for all launches through 2026, the Air Force also decided to end prematurely the development contracts to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman aimed at helping these companies develop new rockets.

An issue at hand is the termination of the Launch Service Agreement contracts that the Air Force awarded in October 2018 to Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, as well as to ULA. The purpose of the agreements was to help Phase 2 competitors pay for launch vehicle development and infrastructure. Blue Origin received $500 million; Northrop Grumman $792 million and ULA $967 million. The funds were to be spread out through 2024, and the Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a Phase 2 procurement contract.

Despite political pressure to not end the LSAs, the agreements will be terminated, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said Aug. 7 during a video conference with reporters. “We will work with those two companies to determine the right point to tie off their work under the LSA agreements,” Roper said. The intent of the LSAs “was to create a more competitive environment leading into Phase 2,” he said. “The point is not to carry them indefinitely.”

LSA funds supported the development of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Northrop Grumman’s OmegA launch vehicle. ULA will continue to receive funds for its Vulcan Centaur vehicle.

Almost immediately after the award of these contracts was announced in 2018, ULA and Blue Origin announced one year delays in the development of Vulcan and New Glenn. Apparently, meeting the additional requirements of military’s bureaucracy in exchange for getting the cash slowed development.

Now they won’t be getting a large part of that cash, making the decision to take it a deal with the devil. The delay in development has definitely hurt both companies in their competition with SpaceX. First, it likely has raised the cost and complexity of their new rockets, making it harder to compete in price. Second, the delay has given SpaceX more time to grab more customers while improving its own rockets.

SpaceX initially protested not getting a share of this development money, but has subsequently chosen to no longer pursue such government money for Starship because it doesn’t want itself hampered by obtuse government officials and their mindless requirements.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman’s Omega rocket is almost certainly dead. That company took the old big space company approach, structuring development around government cash. Without it there is no R&D money at Northrop Grumman to continue work. Furthermore, Omega was designed to serve only once customer, the military. Without any launch contracts there are no customers for Omega, especially because it likely has too high a launch price.

Jeff Bezos sells $3 billion more in Amazon stock

Jeff Bezos this week sold another $3 billion in his Amazon stock, bringing the sales this year along to more than $7 billion.

Amazon stock has soared since mid-March as millions of customers rely on the e-commerce giant amid the pandemic for online shopping, cloud computing, and more. Last week the company posted $88.9 billion in revenue, up 40% from the year-ago quarter, with profits far ahead of Wall Street expectations at $5.2 billion.

Bezos said in 2017 that he was selling $1 billion a year to fund his Blue Origin space venture, but he has been increasing the size and frequency of the stock sales. He sold $2.8 billion worth of Amazon stock a year ago, and around $4 billion earlier this year.

Since 2017 Bezos has now raised more than $11 billion from sales of his Amazon stock. Initially he had said such sales were to finance his space company Blue Origin, but more recently he has indicated he wants to use the bulk of this cash to fight climate change, with portions also devoted services for the homeless and early childhood education.

In fact, it appears that Blue Origin is likely getting only a very small portion of this money, though at several billion this isn’t chicken-feed. At a minimum it likely matches what SpaceX has raised through private investment capital for its Starship/Starlink projects, and more likely exceeds it.

Yet, SpaceX continues to outpace Blue Origin, several times over. If anything, as the cash from Bezos has rolled in Blue Origin’s pace of test flights with New Shepard as well as the development of its BE-4 rocket engine and New Glenn orbital rocket seemed have slowed. Initially New Glenn was going to make its first orbital launch this year. Now they say it will launch next year but we hear little about any development progress. And the company only delivered a test engine of the BE-4 (not flight worthy) to ULA only about a month ago, far later than first promised.

Though the lack of news could simply be Blue Origin’s more secretive way of doing things, compared to SpaceX, I have my doubts. Rockets are big things, and building and testing them is not something easily kept under wraps, especially by private companies. The lack of news from Blue Origin continues to suggest that simply having lots of money does not necessarily guarantee success.

Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

Trump official skeptical of point-to-point suborbital transportation

During the FAA’s annual commercial space conference, the executive secretary for Trump’s National Space Council, Scott Pace, expressed strong skepticism about plans by some companies to develop point-to-point transportation using suborbital spacecraft.

“I still see that as somewhat speculative and somewhat over the horizon,” he said. “I see us working right now on trying to get the suborbital market up, running and sort of stabilized. I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space and pushing hard on the unmanned hypersonic and military applications is where the action is.”

“Maybe it’s not too soon to think about,” he added, “but I still think that’s a bit farther out until I see how the initial market settles out.”

In this context Pace noted his primary focus was in helping Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin get their space tourism businesses off the ground. Virgin Galactic has been making noises that it wants to do point-to-point transportation as well. His skepticism of this is actually quite realistic, since Virgin Galactic has not even completed its first commercial tourism flight and its rocket and spacecraft are underpowered as well.

If Pace’s skepticism is however aimed at SpaceX’s Starship plans to do point-to-point transportation, he is exhibiting a typical Washington bureaucrat’s timidity about new technology.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic has gotten a contract from NASA to train private astronauts. To my mind this is NASA’s attempt to keep this company above water, as it certainly isn’t the most qualified to do this kind of training. If I wanted training for going on a private space mission, SpaceX and Boeing would be better places to get that preparation.

The deal however has done wonders for Virgin Galactic’s stock, causing it to rise almost 16% yesterday following the announcement of this contract. Great timing for Richard Branson, who by coincidence just happens to be trying to sell some of his stock at this moment.

Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

Funding breakdown for three lunar landing contracts

Capitalism in space: The contracts awarded by NASA yesterday to build manned lunar landers totaled almost a billion dollars, distributed as follows:

  • Blue Origin: $579 million
  • Dynetics: $253 million
  • SpaceX: $135 million

That Blue Origin got the biggest amount might have to do with the bid’s subcontractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. This gives these traditional big space partners, who normally rely on these kinds of government contracts and have little ability to make money outside them, some financing. This will also please their political backers in Congress.

For SpaceX, this is the first time they have taken any government money in connection with Starship. It also appears that NASA is going to stay back and generally let SpaceX develop it without undue interference.

NASA contract award for manned lunar landers rejects SLS

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced the award of contracts to three different private companies to develop manned lunar landers for the 2024 Artemis Moon mission, all of which will not use the SLS rocket to get to the Moon.

The press release described the awards as follows:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

All, including NASA and the Trump administration, are aiming to get these landers built and launched by the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline.

The first thing that stands out like a beacon is the exclusion of SLS as the rocket to launch any of these landers. Instead, the aim is to use the cheaper privately built rockets of either SpaceX, ULA, or Blue Origin.

The second thing that stands out is the commitment by SpaceX to use its Super Heavy/Starship rocket, not its Falcon Heavy. This means they are directly telling the world that they expect this rocket to be in operation much sooner than most expect. It also suggests that they hope this rocket will supplant SLS as the main rocket to get to the Moon. The award also means that NASA is agreeable to this.

The third thing that stands out is the exclusion of Boeing, which submitted a bid but did not win. Not only does this exclusion reinforce the sense gotten from an earlier report that NASA was very dissatisfied with Boeing and was thus going to rank it very low in future bidding considerations, it also indicates once again that NASA is seriously looking at other options to SLS. Boeing’s rejected bid was apparently the only one linked to SLS, and was rejected.

In fact, that SLS was not mentioned as the rocket for any of these landers strongly indicates that NASA and the Trump administration is finally abandoning SLS as the rocket to get Americans to the Moon.

Which immediately raises the question: Why the hell are we spending any money building it? It no longer has any purpose at all.

First launch of ULA’s Vulcan on schedule for 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the company is on track to transition as planned from its Atlas 5 and Delta rockets to its new Vulcan rocket.

Just five Delta IV Heavy launches remain on the manifest, all NRO launches procured under the block buy Phase 1 methodology. Bruno expects the final Delta launch to occur in 2023 or 2024.

The workhorse of the ULA fleet, Atlas V, is expected to retire on a similar timeframe. Bruno says the launcher could be “done as early as 2022, or as late as 2024.” Atlas V will have to continue operations until its replacement, Vulcan, can be human-rated to launch the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

…The first flight of Vulcan Centaur is on track for early 2021, with the first flight vehicle under construction, and more vehicles in flow, in ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Vulcan’s debut launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the moon for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. A second launch is currently planned for later that year, which will satisfy the Air Force certification requirement for Vulcan to launch military missions.

Bruno’s report is also good news for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, since both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in their first stage. If ULA is on schedule, than Blue Origin also likely to be on schedule, meaning that come 2021 or so the U.S. will have at least three companies (including SpaceX) capable of putting large payloads into orbit. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is developing its OmegA rocket, which will compete for the same business.

The article also talks about the military’s launch procurement program, which supposedly will pick two of these launch companies to provide all military launches through the 2020s. That program however is certain to fail, as it will blacklist all other viable companies from bidding on military launches. I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

And that is as it should be. Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

Florida to reconfigure Cape Canaveral roads to accommodate New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Because the first stages of Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket will be so large and heavy, Florida is instituting a project to widen roads and move light and utility poles in order to accommodate the transport from the factory to the launchpad.

The road widening will make room for the stage, which must follow a route not usually used. The more direct route however requires the stage to cross a bridge that cannot take its weight. If New Glenn does begin to fly regularly, however, I would expect money will eventually be found to rebuild that bridge.

Blue Origin update on New Shepard and New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin officials today provided an update on both its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft as well as its New Glenn orbital rocket.

First, the company’s CEO, Bob Smith, was quoted as saying that New Shepard would fly three more flights unmanned prior to its first manned flight, and that manned flight will occur before the end of this year.

Smith has made similar promises in the past, so if you are skeptical it is entirely understandable. They have already flown their second New Shepard craft six times successfully. It is unclear if they are they going with a new craft for these manned flights, or using this older test vehicle.

Second, the company released two short public relations videos touting the completion of the first fairing for their orbital New Glenn rocket. In addition, they still expect production of that rocket’s BE-4 engine to begin this year, with a first maiden flight next year.

That predicted launch date still fits the revamped schedule they announced back in October 2018, which suggests they have not experienced any major issues. The next year however will tell the tale.

Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

Bezos sells another $1.8 billion in Amazon stock

Capitalism in space: This past week Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sold more than $1.8 billion of his Amazon stock, apparently as part of his continuing effort to fund his space company Blue Origin in the development of its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft, its New Glenn orbital rocket, and its Blue Moon lunar lander.

In 2017 Bezos had said he would sell off about a billion dollars per year to fund Blue Origin. However, a survey of these stock sales suggests he has upped that figured considerably, with higher sales more frequently. His first big stock sale was in May 2017 for $1 billion. The second was in November 2017 for another billion. Then in August 2018 Bezos did two stock sell-offs within a week of each other, totaling $2.8 billion.

Now, in February 2020, he has raised another $1.8 billion by selling his Amazon stock. All told, he has raised $6.6 billion in cash in just three years. According to him, all of it is supposedly for Blue Origin, though there is no public information to confirm this.

With that much cash, Bezos’s Blue Origin is likely the best funded space company in the world, and should have enough capital to build almost anything it wants.

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