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.

New Shepard completes another test flight

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today successfully completed its sixth unmanned test flight (a new record) of its third New Shepard reusable suborbital spacecraft, the twelfth flight total and the ninth to carry commercial payloads.

The capsule reached an altitude of about 342,000 feet elevation.

Blue Origin’s success here is commendable. I just wish their launch pace was faster. At the pace they are setting I am beginning to think that SpaceX will be flying people to the Moon on Starship before Blue Origin flies its first commercial tourist suborbital flight.

I have embedded the video of the flight below the fold.
» Read more

New Shepard test flight delayed to tomorrow

The sixth flight of Blue Origin’s second New Shepard reusable suborbital capsule has been delayed today until tomorrow due to weather.

As they have done on the last few flights they are launching a number of commercial payloads, including winning high school art chosen as part of a contest sponsored by both Blue Origin and the music band OK Go.

I have embedded below the fold the live stream for tomorrow’s launch, set to go live at around 8 am (Eastern).
» Read more

Air Force to still limit launch contractors to two

The bureaucracy wins again! Though Blue Origin’s protest of the Air Force’s planned launch contract rules was sustained, and the Air Force plans to revise its contracting rules accordingly, the Air Force today announced that because the ruling itself was somewhat limited, it will still be able to limit future bidding for launches to only two contractors, through 2026.

[T]he Air Force intends to award in mid-2020 five-year contracts to two providers. Four companies submitted proposals: Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance.

Although Blue Origin challenged the Air Force’s decision to pick two providers as harmful to the industrial base, GAO had no objections to that approach. “On the whole, we are pleased that the GAO upheld the major components of the National Security Space Launch competition, especially award timelines, quantities, and period of performance,” said [Air Force acquisition executive Will] Roper.

If you read the article, you will discover why the Air Force still wants to limit to two the number of contractors who can bid on launches. Its rules and methods, as described, are so tortuousness and complex that I suspect even the Air Force doesn’t completely understand them. Thus, to deal with more than two bids individually for each launch is beyond the comprehension or ability of these military bureaucrats. Rather streamline their bidding rules, they have decided it is better to put limits on American private enterprise, raise costs for the taxpayer, and squelch innovation and fast development within the military space effort.

Blue Origin wins protest against Air Force

Capitalism in space: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has sustained Blue Origin’s protest against the Air Force’s launch procurement rules that would have limited bidding on all launch contracts for the first half of the 2020s to only two companies.

In a “pre-award” protest, Blue Origin challenged the terms of a request for proposals (RFP) issued by the Air Force earlier this year for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement, which aims to award two contracts next year expected to cover 30 or more medium- and heavy-lift satellite launches the Air Force plans to conduct between 2022 and 2026.

Blue Origin, owned by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is one of four companies that submitted bids for the contracts by the Air Force’s Aug. 1 proposal deadline. The other three companies bidding for the contracts are Northrop Grumman and incumbents United Launch Alliance and SpaceX.

After submitting its bid, Blue Origin filed a formal protest with the GAO arguing that several terms of the RFP unduly restrict competition, are ambiguous, or are inconsistent with customary commercial practice.

The GAO agreed.“GAO sustained the protest, finding that the RFP’s basis for award is inconsistent with applicable procurement law and regulation, and otherwise unreasonable,” Patton said in the statement.

The Air Force’s plan here never made any sense at all. Why put a limit now on the companies that can bid on launches as far in the future as 2026? Why not instead allow all the launch companies, already certified by the Air Force, to bid when the time comes, thus increasing competition while providing the Air Force the most options?

This is good news for the entire American launch industry. It means they will all have the Air Force as a potential customer. It is also good news for the taxpayer, as the competition for business will certainly drive innovation and the lowering of launch prices.

No manned New Shepard flights in 2019

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.

NASA rejects Blue Origin’s proposed SLS upper stage

After considering an alternative bid by Blue Origin to build a less expensive upper stage for NASA’s SLS rocket, replacing the stage that Boeing is building, NASA has decided to reject that bid and stick with Boeing.

NASA sets out three reasons for not opening the competition to Blue Origin. In the document, signed by various agency officials including the acting director for human spaceflight, Ken Bowersox, NASA says Blue Origin’s “alternate” stage cannot fly 10 tons of cargo along with the Orion spacecraft.

Moreover, NASA says, the total height of the SLS rocket’s core stage with Blue Origin’s upper stage exceeds the height of the Vertical Assembly Building’s door, resulting in “modifications to the VAB building height and substantial cost and schedule delays.” Finally, the agency says the BE-3U engine’s higher stage thrust would result in an increase to the end-of-life acceleration of the Orion spacecraft and a significant impact to the Orion solar array design.

The article notes that there were also significant political reasons as well that pushed NASA to favor Boeing.

The article also states that SLS’s cost per launch will be about $2 billion. Though I think that number is probably low because it does not include any of the $25 billion spent for development, it does compare badly with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which costs about $100 million per launch.

Blue Origin partners with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Draper to build lunar lander

At a science conference yesterday Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin has formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to propose building a manned lunar lander for NASA.

In the first major update on the company’s lander program since May, Bezos said Blue Origin has assembled a “national team” of aerospace contractors to develop, build and fly the three-stage spacecraft, which is based on Blue Origin’s previous work on the Blue Moon landing system.

“Blue Origin is the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin is building the ascent stage, Northrop Grumman is building the transfer element and Draper is doing the GNC (guidance, navigation and control),” Bezos said Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “We could not ask for better partners. Blue Origin, in addition to being the prime, is going to build the descent element.”

Blue Origin is competing for a NASA contract to develop a crewed lunar lander, or Human Landing System, for the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by the end of 2024.

This partnership reminds me of the way the aerospace industry functioned before the arrival of SpaceX. No one would compete. Instead, they would meet like a cartel and divvy up the work so that everyone had a share. The result was that very little new stuff got built, and over time the entire industry began to die.

The goal of this partnership now seems aimed at Congress and convincing legislators (especially the Democrats who control the House) to drop their opposition to Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal and fund it. Whether this will work remains unknown, and will likely have to wait until after the results of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, it is very interesting that Blue Origin is the prime contractor, considering how very very little Blue Origin has so far achieved in space. I wonder if Bezos has committed some of his personal capital to this venture (more than $2.8 billion cash intended for his space ventures), and doled it out to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper as an incentive to become subcontractors.

Bezos’ presentation also provided an update on Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine, designed as part of this lunar lander. It appears however that he said nothing about the BE-4 engine that the company is building for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and its own New Glenn rocket. Except for one update in August, there has been little said about this engine in about a year and a half. As this engine is key to the entire company’s financial future, this silence makes me continue to wonder if it has issues.

Blue Origin hints at the New Shepard ticket price

Capitalism in space: For the first time a Blue Origin official has provided a very rough estimate of what the company will charge per ticket for someone to take a flight in its suborbital New Shepard spacecraft.

But today, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith hinted at a ballpark figure. “It’s going to not be cheap,” Smith said at TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF conference.

Although he stressed that the price for passengers hasn’t yet been published, he indicated that Blue Origin now has a price range in mind. “Any new technology is never cheap, whether you’re talking about the first IBM computers or what we actually see today,” Smith said. “But it’ll be actually in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for people to go, initially.”

Smith added that over time, “we’re going to get this down to the point where middle-class people” can afford a ticket to space. [emphasis mine]

This price sounds somewhat comparable to the prices being offered by Virgin Galactic. For the first people who had been willing to put down a deposit years ago they will pay $250K. Future buyers will pay more, at least at first.

Of course, neither company appears ready to put passengers on board, though both seem finally close and aiming for commercial flights no later than 2021. (Having said that, please don’t quote me, as I don’t really believe it, based on the endless delays coming from both companies.)

More delays for New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed this week that the first manned flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard spacecraft will likely not happen in 2019, as previously announced.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission for at least two more New Shepard test flights from its test and launch facility in West Texas. These would be the 12th and 13th flights of the New Shepard test program.

On Tuesday, Blue Origin sought reauthorization of the next test flight for a six-month period running from Nov. 1 to next May. The existing authorization is set to expire on Dec. 1, which suggests that the company wants to reserve more time to prepare for the test.

Whether those next two test flights will use the capsule they have flown previously, or a new capsule, dubbed “RSS First Step”, that they intend to put the first people on, could determine how much of a delay to expect. That new capsule is built but it has never flown. If the next two flights use the previous test capsule, this would guarantee even more delays before Blue Origin flies people.

Blue Origin protests Air Force launch procurement process

Blue Origin has submitted a protest to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) yesterday about the Air Force plan to pick two launch providers now for all its satellite launches after 2026.

According to a copy of the protest obtained by FLORIDA TODAY, the ordering period for the launches would run from 2020 to 2024 and ultimately select two contractors for flights beginning in 2026.

“The most recent market research, however, indicates the total global addressable space launch market, including NSSL launches, could support three or even four U.S. launch companies,” the protest reads. “Even the Agency’s own LSP source selection support contractor – the Aerospace Corporation – predicts that the space launch market has significant potential to suffer from a launch capacity shortfall because U.S. and foreign government launches will require most of the available launch capacity.”

I couldn’t agree with Blue Origin more. The Air Force wants to limit competition in the 2020s to only two companies, which will almost certainly be ULA and SpaceX since they are the only two presently flying, when by the 2020s there might be several more companies available providing competition that can lower the price.

There is no reason for the Air Force to make this decision now. None. When they need to order these launches in the early 2020s they should open that bidding process to all comers, and pick appropriately, then. Everything about this Pentagon plan stinks, reeking of the corruption that permeates Washington. I even wonder if some people have gotten pay-offs in connection with the decision to favor only two companies. It wouldn’t surprise me. (I myself have been offered money to let military lobbying companies ghostwrite op-eds using my name, supporting this Air Force plan, offers that I very bluntly turned down.)

Also, even if Blue Origin’s protest now fails, expect whoever doesn’t get picked by the Air Force now to file lawsuits in the 2020s when they are denied the right to bid on those future launches. And expect the Air Force to then back down, as it was forced to do when SpaceX was denied the right to bid on Air Force contracts early in this decade.

One more thought: This protest suggests Blue Origin already expects to not get picked. This expectation might also explain why Jeff Bezos decided to sell more Amazon stock last week, raising almost $3 billion in capital. He might be anticipating that Blue Origin will be cut out of those Air Force contracts, and so needs more of his own money to develop its New Glenn rocket.

Bezos provides 1st BE-4 engine update in more than a year

Yesterday Jeff Bezos posted the first status update since last spring on the development of the BE-4 rocket engine by Blue Origin, posting one image and stating that the engine testing continues.

According to his post, the engine had just completed a full power test, and has been accumulating test time.

This update is very reassuring, especially following such a long period of silence, beginning in April 2018. Before that Blue Origin had provided somewhat regularly updates.

In reviewing my past posts, it appears that the updates more or less ceased once ULA announced its decision to use the BE-4 in its Vulcan rocket. I now suspect the earlier updates were aimed more at ULA than the public, and once the decision was made Blue Origin returned to its more traditional tight-lipped approach.

Bezos sells another $1.8 billion in Amazon stock

Capitalism in space? Jeff Bezos last night sold just under a million shares of his Amazon stock, earning in cash an estimated $1.8 billion.

Unlike a similar sale of stock by Bezos last April, there is no statement from Bezos about what he intends to use the money for. Then Bezos made it clear that he intended to periodically sell his stock to raise money for Blue Origin and its various space ventures. Today’s sale was the third since he said this, with total earnings from all three sales totaling about $4 billion, and all are likely aimed at funding that space company.

I might have increasing concerns about Blue Origin because of what appears to be a stalled rollout of New Shepard and New Glenn, but with deep pockets such as this, it would be surprising if the company fails to achieve its goals.

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