Tag Archives: Blue Origin

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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Bezos sells an additional billion dollars in Amazon stock

Jeff Bezos this week sold an additional billion dollars in Amazon stock, bringing his total cash-in in 2019 now to $2.8 billion, and his total cash sales of stock to about $5 billion since he said several years ago that he would sell about $1 billion per year to finance his space company Blue Origin.

He still owns 12% of Amazon.

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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.

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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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Blue Origin completes first test of lunar lander engine

Capitalism in space: This week Jeff Bezos revealed that Blue Origin had successfully completed the first static test firing of its BE-7 rocket engine, intended for use in its Blue Moon lunar lander.

Company founder Jeff Bezos tweeted June 19 that the test of the BE-7 engine took place the previous day at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The 35-second test went as expected, he said. “Data looks great and hardware is in perfect condition,” he wrote in the post, which included a video of the test.

Bezos is clearly lobbying here for the contracts to build NASA’s first manned lunar lander should its Artemis program get funded.

Meanwhile, there is been no update on the status of his company’s BE-4 engine since April 2018. I wonder why..

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Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket

Link here. Overall the rocket seems to be on track for its planned April 2021 launch, except it appears ULA has decided to do that launch without two new components of the rocket that previously were planned, delaying their implementation.

First, it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights. It seems that both companies want that engine to first fly on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, whose first launch is not set until 2021 as well.

This delay in the engine’s use has me wondering whether ULA has gotten cold feet about Blue Origin and its engine. It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

In fact, the combination of increased hype and lack of progress has made Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos remind me increasingly of Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, that team of endless unmet promises.

Second, it appears ULA has given the recovery and reuse of Vulcan’s first stage engines a very low priority. The technique they had chosen was to have the engines separate from the tanks and return to Earth by parafoil, protected by an inflatable heat shield. However,

A technology demonstration payload for the inflatable heat shield, which could also be used to deliver payloads to the surface of Mars, is slated to fly as a rideshare payload with NOAA’s JPSS-2 satellite aboard an Atlas V launch no earlier than 2022. [emphasis mine]

In other words, that reusable technology probably won’t be operational until well into the 2020s. Vulcan will likely be completely expendable for at least the first five years of its use.

ULA apparently has decided to take the safe technology route. Financially secure because of a $1 billion Air Force development contract to pay for Vulcan, combined with the military’s obvious desire to favor them in the awarding of future launch contracts, the company doesn’t have any incentive to innovate in any way to lower costs.

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Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

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New Shepard test flight successful

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin is planning to do another New Shepard test flight within the next hour.

You can watch it here.

The flight was successful. It was the fifth flight of this spacecraft and booster. They reached 346,000 feet elevation, about 65 miles.

During the telecast the announcer said that Blue Origin hopes to initiate passenger flights before the end of this year.

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Blue Origin leases old unused NASA engine test stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Air Force’s launch contracting plans under scrutiny

It appears the Air Force wants to decide now which two rocket companies it will use for its launch needs in the 2022 to 2026 time period, and this desire is raising hackles among those companies.

[T]he Air Force will choose only two companies to meet its launch needs from 2022 to 2026, with one provider winning 60 percent of the contracts and the other taking 40 percent. There is no provision to on-ramp other companies during the time frame.

This sets up a rather frantic competition between the incumbents, ULA and SpaceX, and newcomers Blue Origin (with its New Glenn booster) and Northrop Grumman (with its Omega rocket). Moreover, the timing appears to prejudice the competition in favor of the incumbents, which already have existing launch systems the government can assess.

Something is really fishy here. Why does the Air Force need to limit its services to only two companies? And why do they have to make this decision now, three to seven years before the launches will occur? Common sense says you instead issue specific contract bids, for each launch, as they are needed, thus allowing as many companies as possible to compete for the business.

In fact, this policy seems to directly contradict the Air Force’s stated goal, repeated many times in the past few years, to widen competition in the launch industry, both to lower cost and to give the military strategic redundancy in its needed launch services.

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Bezos comparing New Shepard to SpaceShipTwo: “No asterisks.”

Capitalism in space: During an event yesterday, Blue Origin’s owner Jeff Bezos made it a point to note the superior launch capabilities of Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft over Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo.

Bezos, in the interview, pointed out the altitude difference between the two vehicles. New Shepard has typically exceeded 100 kilometers, an altitude known as the Karman Line, on its test flights. SpaceShipTwo reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers on its most recent test flight Dec. 13, its first above the 50-mile boundary used by U.S. government agencies to award astronaut wings. “One of the issues that Virgin Galactic will have to address, eventually, is that they are not flying above the Karman Line, not yet,” Bezos said. “I think one of the things they will have to figure out how to get above the Karman Line.”

“We’ve always had as our mission that we wanted to fly above the Karman Line, because we didn’t want there to be any asterisks next to your name about whether you’re an astronaut or not,” he continued. “That’s something they’re going to have to address, in my opinion.”

For those who fly on New Shepard, he said, there’ll be “no asterisks.”

Bezos also indicated that he is increasingly hopeful that the first manned test flights of New Shepard will occur this year.

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Military inspector general to review SpaceX’s launch certification

The swamp attacks! The inspector general for the Defense Department has begun a review of the process the Air Force used to certify SpaceX as a qualified military launch provider.

“Our objective is to determine whether the U.S. Air Force complied with the Launch Services New Entrant Certification Guide when certifying the launch system design for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle-class SpaceX Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles,” the inspector general said in a memo to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson sent on Monday.

The only reason I can see for this investigation is that the launch companies that have development contracts with the military — ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin — are applying pressure to get SpaceX eliminated as a competitor. And since there are many in the government aerospace bureaucracy who are in bed with these companies and are also hostile to SpaceX, that pressure has succeeded in getting this investigation started.

SpaceX meanwhile has successfully launched one military payload, and has two more military launches scheduled for 2019. Its prices are so low that these other companies cannot presently compete, not without political help. Worse, it appears these other companies, and the Air Force, do not appear interested in reducing the cost of their next generation rockets to become more competitive. Instead, they apparently have decided to turn the screws on SpaceX and get it eliminated as a competitor.

Meanwhile, SpaceX might be doing its own political push back, behind the scenes. At least, why else did two California lawmakers recently demand a review of the Air Force’s rocket development contracts to all of SpaceX’s competitors, but not SpaceX?

All of this has absolutely nothing to do with picking the best and cheapest launch companies to save the taxpayer money. Instead, the entire way our government operates today is completely uninterested in the needs of the nation. The focus of lawmakers and government officials is to play political games in an effort to take out their opponents. And in this battle the country be damned.

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Trump administration moves forward with reorganization of space bureaucracy

The Trump administration is moving ahead with its planned reorganization of the military’s entire space bureaucracy under the rubric of the Space Force.

The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to create a Space Force as a new military branch. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Force will be small in size and its advantage will come in the form of cutting-edge technology.

Shanahan also has concluded that the existing DoD bureaucracies are not equipped to deliver next-generation space technologies quickly enough. He has directed the establishment of a Space Development Agency that would report directly to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Many details are still being worked out about the SDA, but Shanahan said in a memo that he wants it set up by March 29.

Because much of the modern press does such a bad job, working from a general ignorance, I must repeat again that the goal here is not to make a space army, with laser guns and uniforms, but to centralize the various military space departments, scattered across several divisions, into one office that has some clout because it reports directly to the White House. Right now these scattered offices report to different military agencies with different and competing agendas. The result has been a poorly coordinated space policy that has been expensive and also unable to accomplish much in recent years.

Whether this reorganization will streamline things as it is intended remains an open question. The bureaucratic culture in Washington is certainly never interested in streamlining. The usual result of such efforts is a larger bureaucracy that spends even more. We shall see.

This action is also related to another story today: Lawmakers: Air Force launch procurement strategy undermines SpaceX

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) are calling for an independent review of the Air Force’s space launch procurement strategy. They contend that the Air Force, in an effort to broaden the launch playing field, is putting SpaceX at a competitive disadvantage.

In a Feb. 4 letter addressed to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Feinstein and Calvert — both with strong ties to the space industry — argue that the path the Air Force has chosen to select future launch providers creates an unfair playing field. Although SpaceX is not mentioned in the letter by name, it is clear from the lawmakers’ language that they believe the company is getting a raw deal because, unlike its major competitors, it did not receive Air Force funding to modify its commercial rockets so they meet national security mission requirements.

This second story actually illustrates the bureaucratic concerns that the Trump administration is trying to address in the first story. It appears to the elected officials that the military’s award of this contract was not necessarily in the best interests of the military, but instead was designed to help some companies at the expense of others.

The $2.3 billion in funding went to ULA, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman to develop their next generation rockets. Why SpaceX, considered a favorite, did not receive any funding remains unclear, though SpaceX officials have indicated that in the past they have refused government development money (for building Falcon Heavy) because of the requirements attached. It could be that SpaceX did the same here, but it is also possible that the military bureaucracy played favorites.

It is this question that the elected officials want clarified.

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Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket gets another launch contract

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has signed a multi-launch contract with Telesat to use its still unbuilt New Glenn rocket.

This is good news for Blue Origin, but I also guarantee that Telesat has the option to switch launch providers should New Glenn be delayed or suffer any serious issues during development.

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Blue Origin reveals redesigned New Glenn rocket

Capitalism in space: In a video animation Blue Origin last week revealed a new redesigned version of its orbital New Glenn rocket.

There are a few notable differences between the rocket depicted in the new video and the New Glenn we saw in a similar 2017 animation. For example, the older version featured a payload fairing — the protective nose cone that surrounds spacecraft during launch — that was bullet-shaped and 18 feet (5.4 meters) wide. The current incarnation boasts a 23-foot-wide (7 m) fairing with a traditional snub-nosed look. (A previously envisioned three-stage New Glenn featured this bigger fairing, but this booster variant is no longer part of Blue Origin’s plans.)

And the first stage’s six landing legs will apparently now deploy a bit differently — by unfolding outward from the bottom, much as Falcon 9 legs do, rather than sort of sliding downward.

These changes are almost certainly are the result of the company’s Air Force contract that gave it $500 million in development money in exchange for having a say in how the rocket is built.

For example, I am not surprised that New Glenn now more closely resembles the Falcon 9. The modern American military is not known for its daring or innovation. It had to be sued to finally agree to award contracts to SpaceX. Now that the Falcon 9 is well proven, however, the military bean-counters are probably demanding that New Glenn copy it, rather than introduce innovations of its own.

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New Shepard makes another successful test flight

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin’s suborbital New Shepard spacecraft made another successful test flight today, reaching approximately 350,000 feet elevation, about 66 miles.

This was the fourth flight for this second New Shepard craft, and the tenth overall of their test program.

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

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