Tag Archives: Blue Origin

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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Three launches scrubbed

Capitalism in space: Both SpaceX and Blue Origin scrubbed planned launches today due to what appear to be minor technical issues.

SpaceX was launching a GPS satellite for the military, while Blue Origin was going to fly its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its third flight. SpaceX will try again tomorrow, while Blue Origin has not yet announced a new launch date.

Meanwhile, ULA’s attempt to launch a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) spy satellite tonight with its most powerful rocket, the Delta 4 Heavy, faces bad weather, with only a 20% chance of launch.

UPDATE: I missed a third launch scrub today, Arianespace’s attempt to launch a trio of French military satellites using a Soyuz rocket from French Guiana. They will try again tomorrow.

This means there will be three launch attempts tomorrow, since India plans a launch of its GSLV rocket as well.

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Why ULA picked Blue Origin’s engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In an interview of ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, he subtly revealed why his company in the end favored Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in the design of the Vulcan rocket.

Unlike many of the new entrants that you talk about coming in today, we’re not a startup company living off investor capital; we’re a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [Editor’s note: This is a reference to Blue Origin] brought investment as well as schedule, that was a pretty important factor. It became pretty obvious what the right choice was, and we arrived at it with our stakeholders.

In other words, Blue Origin’s willingness to invest its own capital in engine development was a major factor. Aerojet Rocketdyne was using the old model of big space, whereby all development money came from the government. It had been unwilling to commit any of its own funds to engine development. This reluctance implied it wasn’t really committed to the project. If Air Force funding disappeared, they’d back out, leaving ULA in the lurch.

This tidbit from Bruno also suggests that he and the management at ULA are sincerely working to reshape ULA from an old big space company, totally reliant on the subsidies given by the government, into a modern competitive company focused instead on building an affordable product that customers will want to buy.

This story also tells us a lot about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s future, or lack thereof. The rocket industry is changing, and if that company doesn’t change also, it will soon die.

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Blue Origin reveals more details about New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin’s release of a payload user guide has provided space geeks a wealth of new information about the design of its New Glenn orbital rocket.

Numerous other items of interest are mentioned on the Guide, with launch vehicle specific elements such as a large common bulkhead being employed on the second stage and common tooling on the second stage and that is also aluminum orthogrid material in its construction. The rocket will use autogenous pressurization for both stages.

The large 7 meter fairing has the ability to launch very large payloads such as space telescopes, but also dual payloads – not unlike Ariane 5 regularly conducts.

The Guide refines some performance numbers, with 1060 kN (240,000 lb) total thrust cited for the second stage, which is slightly down from the 125,000 lb per BE-3U – the second stage engine-performance previously stated by Blue Origin’s online resources.

The article at the link also provides some updates on the status of the construction of the rocket’s launchpad, landing barge, and manufacturing facility.

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Blue Origin’s ship for its 1st stage landings arrives in Florida

Capitalism in space: The ship that Blue Origin plans to restructure into a landing platform for the first stages of its New Glenn orbital rocket has docked in a Florida port.

The 600-foot cargo ship the Stena Freighter arrived in the Port of Pensacola on Thursday after making a transatlantic voyage from Portugal.

Blue Origin, the private rocket company started by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, will be using the ship as a landing platform for the company’s New Glenn rocket design expected to lift off in 2020 for its first test flight.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith confirmed during the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit on Oct. 10 that the Stena Freight would be used to land rockets, according to a report from the technology news website GeekWire.

The article does not provide much more information, other than a much bigger public announcement is planned about this in about a week.

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Blue Origin delays New Shepard and New Glenn

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced yesterday that they are delaying the first manned test flights of their suborbital New Shepard spacecraft until next year.

The announcement also outlined their planned test launch schedule for their orbital New Glenn rocket, now set to launch for the first time in 2021, delayed from 2020 as previously announced.

I find it interesting that the same day the Air Force announces that it is giving this company a half billion dollars for development of this rocket, the company reveals that it is delaying the launch for one year. To my mind, the extra money should have helped them keep their schedule, instead of causing a delay.

What instead happens in Washington, however, is that the subsidized companies now stretch out their program in order to get more government money, focused more on that cash then on building anything. Witness for example Boeing and SLS.

What makes this strange is that Blue Origin already has plenty of capital, to the tune of about a billion per year, from Jeff Bezos. His investment should really be plenty for this company to do what it needs to do.

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Air Force awards contracts to ULA, Northrop Grumman, Blue Origin

The competition heats up: The Air Force today announced contract awards to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin to help further the development of their new rockets.

The award to Blue Origin will be for development of the New Glenn Launch System. The award to Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems is for development of the OmegA Launch System. The award to United Launch Alliance will be for development of the Vulcan Centaur Launch System.

The Launch Service Agreements will facilitate the development of three domestic launch system prototypes and enable the future competitive selection of two National Security Space launch service providers for future procurements, planned for no earlier than fiscal year 2020.

The press release makes no mention of the amount of money being granted to these companies. Personally, I’d rather the government gave nothing until it actually bought real launch services from these companies, but it can only help the Air Force to have four different launch companies (when you include SpaceX) to draw upon. And the competition will force all four to reduce their costs and be creative.

Update: One of my readers in the comments below provided this link outlining the money granted for each contract, with ULA getting just under $1 billion, Northrop Grumman getting just under $800 million, and Blue Origin getting $500 million. This is not chicken-feed, and is in essence a subsidy for all three companies. The large amounts will act to discourage cost-savings, and in my opinion is a mistake. Whenever government bodies provide these kinds of subsidies prior to the deliver of services, the cost for the services inevitably is higher.

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ULA picks Blue Origin rocket engine for Vulcan first stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine to power the first stage of its next generation rocket, which they are now calling Vulcan-Centaur.

Two BE-4 engines will be used to power the Vulcan first stage. The press release does not mention anything about how they plan to recover these first stages. Earlier announcements had said that they would separate from the rocket stage and parachute down to be capture before hitting the ground.

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Has Aerojet Rocketdyne lost engine race with Blue Origin?

Aerojet Rocketdyne financial documents suggest that it has given up the bidding competition with Blue Origin to supply a rocket engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

The latest financial release from aerospace manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne reveals that the company spent none of its own money on development of the AR1 rocket engine this spring. Moreover, the quarterly 10-Q filing that covers financial data through June 30, 2018 indicates that Aerojet may permanently stop funding the engine with its own money altogether—a sign the company has no immediate customers.

Although Aerojet will continue to receive some funding from the US military through next year to develop its large, new rocket engine, this money won’t be enough to bring it to completion. Instead of having a flight-ready engine for use by the end of 2019, the filing indicates that Aerojet now intends to have just a single prototype completed within the time frame.

Essentially this means ULA will have no choice but to pick Blue Origin’s engine, unless the Air Force pulls its weight and demands it take Aerojet rocketdyne, even if that means a significant delay before Vulcan can launch.

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First manned flights on Blue Origin’s New Shepard delayed to 2019

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has now delayed the first manned flights on its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft into 2019.

They had said they would be doing manned test flights before the end of 2018, but these flights have not happened, and now they admit that they will be delayed until 2019.

Overall, the lack of test flights in 2018 is somewhat puzzling. They have a spacecraft that is built on a design that previously flew multiple times. Why should the second craft have problems causing such delays?

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Another successful test flight for second New Shepard suborbital spacecraft

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today completed another successful test flight for its second New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

This flight tested the capsule’s launch abort capabilities. It was also this spacecraft’s third flight. The link provides a replay of the full broadcast. I have embedded this below the fold. The launch is at about 29 minutes.

More info here.
» Read more

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Blue Origin to charge $200K for New Shepard tourist flights

Capitalism in space: According to a news report this week, Blue Origin plans to charge $200,000 to $300,000 per person for suborbital tourist flights on its reusable New Shepard capsule.

The company itself refused to comment on the story, which is based on two different anonymous sources.

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ULA picks Aerojet Rocketdyne engine for Vulcan upper stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine to power the upper stage of its next generation rocket Vulcan.

The company has not yet made a decision on the engine for the first stage, where Blue Origin’s BE-4 still appears favored over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. This decision on the upper stage could partly be a political move, giving Aerojet the upper stage in order to make it easier to give the lower stage to Blue Origin.

ULA is forced to play politics here because politicians are involved. A number of power members of Congress want Aerojet Rocketdyne to get the business, and ULA risks offending these legislators should it abandon that company entirely.

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Successful test flight of New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin today successful flew its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft on its second test flight.

You can watch the video of the full flight here. Try not to cringe listening to the announcer, who I think sometimes overdoes it.

They were aiming for a maximum altitude of 350,000 feet, which would place the capsule more than 100 kilometers or 66 miles above the Earth, the generally accepted altitude for the start of space. The live stream showed an maximum altitude of about 347,000, but the article says that later recalculations estimated a top altitude of 351,000.

Either way, they have now successfully achieved a safe suborbital spaceflight twice with this spacecraft, and both times carried science payloads. Meanwhile, their direct competitor, Virgin Galactic, has come no where close, even after fourteen years of development.

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Blue Origin to test fly New Shepard tomorrow

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos announced yesterday that Blue Origin plans to test fly New Shepard tomorrow on its first flight for 2018.

“Launch preparations are underway for New Shepard’s 8th test flight, as we continue our progress toward human spaceflight. Currently targeting Sunday 4/29 with launch window opening up at 830am CDT. Livestream info to come. @BlueOrigin #GradatimFerociter,” Bezos said via Twitter.

I am glad to hear this. The lack of flights has been puzzling. That they are moving forward again is good news.

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Blue Origin’s CEO gives an update on the company’s rockets

Link here. According to the CEO, Bob Smith, they are making good progress on developing their BE-4 rocket engine, and also expect to test fly New Shepard again in a few weeks.

In both cases, he admits that development has taken longer than expected. For example, in discussing New Shepard, he said the following:

Smith said Blue Origin is still planning to start flying people on its New Shepard suborbital spaceship by the end of the year, after further uncrewed tests. “We would have loved to have flown more, earlier, but the design incorporation didn’t go as quickly as we’d like it to,” Smith said.

I have no idea what he means by “design incorporation.” The bottom line however is that they have had issues that slowed things down.

The article provides a lot more details. Overall, while he says nothing that contradicts earlier reports, he provides a good summary of the company’s status.

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Delays in New Shepard program?

In an interview for a Seattle news outlet, a Blue Origin official inadvertently hinted that the program was experiencing delays. Her words:

New Shepard will be flying Blue Origin employees by the end of this year, assuming our test program continues to go well. Within the next year or two, we’ll have paying customers, which is really exciting.

This vague statement confirms an earlier statement by another Blue Origin official, that the first manned test flights will not occur until the very end of this year, and that paying customers might not fly until 2020. It appears that there might be issues that are causing the New Shepard project to slow down. It could be the hardware, or maybe the company is reconsidering the profitability of suborbital tourism. By 2020 both SpaceX and Boeing will have the capability of putting tourists into orbit. The price might be much higher, but a large percentage of the customers who could afford the suborbital flight could also afford the orbital flight, and if they need to pick many are going to go orbital, reducing the customer base for the suborbital business.

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Blue Origin changes engines for New Glenn second stage

Capitalism in space: In order to maintain its goal of launch its orbital New Glenn rocket by 2020, Blue Origin has changed the engine it will use in the rocket’s second stage from a version of its main BE-4 engine to new version of their already developed BE-3 engine, used in their reusable New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

A Blue Origin executive told SpaceNews the company is shelving development of a vacuum-optimized version of BE-4 and will instead use vacuum-optimized versions of flight-proven BE-3 engines for New Glenn’s second stage and optional third stage. “We’ve already flown BE-3s, and we were already in the development program for BE-3U as the third stage for New Glenn,” said Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. “It made a lot of sense for us to switch to an architecture where we get there faster for first flight.”

The BE-3U is the upper stage variant of the liquid hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine that has powered Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard spacecraft on seven suborbital test flights since its 2015 debut. Mowry said switching to the BE-3U for New Glenn’s second stage will allow Blue Origin to conduct the rocket’s first launch in the fourth quarter of 2020. He declined to say how much time the engine change saves compared to the original configuration.

This quiet change, which the company made with no fanfare, carries with it some significant information as well as important ramifications. First, the BE-3 engine is less powerful than the planned BE-4, which is why they will use two BE-3 engines in the second stage instead of one BE-4, while also extending the length of the stage to accommodate more fuel. Though they claim the change will increase the rocket’s range, I suspect however that even with these changes New Glenn’s overall orbital payload capacity will be reduced.

Second, the change indicates that development of the BE-4 engine is proceeding slower than expected, threatening their 2020 launch goal. They have had one test failure that set them back, and the change suggests to me that they are having issues with making the engine restartable.

Third, if they have problems making the BE-4 engines restartable, this means their plans to reuse the first stage of New Glenn will be impacted. While those first stage engines do not need to restart on any single flight, reusing them requires this capability.

Fourth, problems with the BE-4 might cause ULA to reject it and choose Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine for its new Vulcan rocket. Up to now ULA has indicated it prefers the BE-4. These issues might change that.

Fifth, this change, combined with the continuing lack of New Shepard test flights, suggests that the company is increasingly considering abandoning this suborbital spacecraft.

I am doing a lot of speculating here, and could be very wrong on many if not all of these suppositions. We shall have to wait and see.

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