2020 a Busy Year for Suborbital Launches

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Suborbital launch used to be a sleepy field that rarely attracted much public attention. Let’s face it, atmospheric research and student experiments are not front-page news. Sounding rockets don’t have the majesty and power of a Falcon 9 or Atlas V.

In recent years, exciting new entrants in the field and widespread streaming of launches have made suborbital flights exciting. Last year saw important suborbital flight tests by SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and Skyrora that garnered worldwide interest.

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Blue Origin Announces Board of Advisors

KENT, Wash. (Blue Origin PR) — Blue Origin today announced the formation of its Board of Advisors, which includes notable former government space leaders and industry executives. The Board will provide strategic counsel on the company’s mission to radically reduce the cost of access to space and the utilization of in-space resources. In doing so, the Board will further advance Blue Origin’s vision of millions of people living and working in space to benefit the Earth. 

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New Shepard Successfully Completes Mission with NASA Precision Lunar Landing Technology Onboard

New Shepard landing on the pad in West Texas on October 13, 2020, with the NASA Lunar Landing Sensor Demo onboard. (Credit: Blue Origin)

CORN RANCH, Texas (Blue Origin PR) — Blue Origin successfully completed the 13th New Shepard mission to space and back, and the 7th consecutive flight for this particular vehicle, a record. Catch the mission webcast replay on Blue Origin’s YouTube page.

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Blue Origin BE-4 to Support ULA National Security Launches, Continue New Glenn Development

BE-4 engines (Credit: Blue Origin)

KENT, Wash. (Blue Origin PR) — Today, Blue Origin issued the following statement regarding the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement (LSP) announcement: 

“We are disappointed in the decision that New Glenn was not selected for the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement (LSP). We submitted an incredibly compelling offer for the national security community and the U.S. taxpayer. Blue Origin’s offer was based on New Glenn’s heavy-lift performance, unprecedented private investment of more than $2.5 billion, and a very competitive single basic launch service price for any mission across the entire ordering period. We are proceeding with New Glenn development to fulfill our current commercial contracts, pursue a large and growing commercial market, and enter into new civil space launch contracts. We remain confident New Glenn will play a critical role for the national security community in the future due to the increasing realization that space is a contested domain and a robust, responsive, and resilient launch capability is ever more vital to U.S security. 

Blue Origin is very proud that our BE-4 engine will power United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle in support of the Space Force’s NSSL program and end reliance on Russian-built engines. The BE-4 is the most powerful liquefied natural gas-fueled rocket engine ever developed and the first oxygen-rich staged combustion engine made in the U.S. We look forward to supporting ULA’s long-standing role in launching national security payloads.” 

– Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin

Blue Origin Opens Huntsville Manufacturing Facility

Ribbon cutting ceremony at Blue Origin’s production facility in Huntsville, Ala. (Credit: Blue Origin)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala., February 17, 2020 (Blue Origin PR) — Today, Blue Origin opened its rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, AL. The world-class engine manufacturing facility in The Rocket City will conduct high rate production of the BE-4 and BE-3U engines. These engines will undergo testing at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center on the historic Test Stand 4670. BE-7, our lunar landing engine, is also currently in test at NASA Marshall.

“At the core of every successful launch vehicle program are the engines that power those vehicles to space. Early on in Blue Origin’s history, we made a crucial decision to invest in developing the next generation of reusable rocket engines. And now, it’s an exciting time for Blue, our partners and this country –we are on the path to deliver on our promise to end the reliance on Russian made engines – and it’s all happening right here, right now, in the great state of Alabama. We couldn’t be prouder to call this our home for engine production,” said Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin.

Blue will add more than 300 jobs to the local economy with an investment of over $200 million in the facility.

Here is a video of the BE-4 engine progress.

2019: A Busy Year in Suborbital Flight

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Last year was a busy one for suborbital flights as Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic conducted a combined four flights of their crewed suborbital vehicles. Despite hopes to the contrary, neither company flew paying tourists on their spaceships.

There were also 26 sounding rocket launches that carried scientific experiments and technology payloads above the atmosphere. The year saw:

  • Japanese startup Interstellar Technologies conduct a successful launch of its Momo commercial sounding rocket;
  • Texas-based Exos Aerospace continue to struggle with its reusable SARGE booster; and,
  • the first suborbital launch ever achieved by college students.
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Blue Origin Plans 2 More New Shepard Flights Before Flying People

Blue Origin’s New Shepard reusable, suborbital rocket. (Credits: Blue Origin)

CNBC reports that Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin plans two more flight tests of the reusable New Shepard booster and capsule before flying people on suborbital flights. The additional tests could delay the first human flight into next year.

CEO Bob Smith has talked about the first crewed flight of New Shepard happening as early as the end of 2018 – but that goal has steadily been pushed back. Smith, in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday, explained why Blue Origin has delayed the first crewed flight and continued to test.

“It’s really the robustness of our entire system. It’s not one individual thing that’s driving [these delays],” Smith said. “It’s us being cautious and thorough with the total systems we need to verify.”

He noted that Blue Origin has been pushing the limits of its software and hardware, as well as testing its BE-3 rocket engine for extreme and unexpected situations.

Blue Origin has filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission to conduct the 12th New Shepard launch no earlier than Nov. 1.

New Shepard consists of a reusable booster and capsule. The capsule lands by parachute while the booster touches down using landing legs.

Blue Origin has recovered the capsules and boosters on 10 of the 11 flights. On one flight, the booster crashed while the capsule landed safely.

The company has not announced when it will begin to sell tickets and what price it will charge. Tickets aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which expects to begin commercial suborbital flights next year, cost $250,000. Virgin Founder Richard Branson plans to be aboard the first commercial flight.

Blue Origin Breaks Ground on Huntsville Engine Factory

Blue Origin groundbreaking. Pictured left to right: Greg Canfield, Alabama Secretary of Commerce; Kim Lewis, Huntsville/Madison County Chamber 2019 Board Chair; Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle; Alabama Governor Kay Ivey; United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno; Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith; Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong; U.S. Senator Doug Jones; U.S. Congressman Mo Brooks; Clayco CEO Bob Clark. (Credit: Blue Origin)

HUNTSVILLE, Ala., January 25, 2019 (Blue Origin PR) — Today we broke ground on the construction of a world-class rocket engine production facility in Huntsville, Alabama, extending the city’s rich legacy in liquid rocket engines.

Here are excerpts from today’s groundbreaking ceremony given by Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith:

It’s a great day here in Rocket City. Thanks to the votes of confidence from United Launch Alliance, from the Air Force for national security missions, and from Huntsville and the state of Alabama, we are breaking ground on a facility to produce our world-class engines and power the next generation of spaceflight.

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New Shepard Flights Set to Resume Soon

Mannequin Skywalker — an instrumented test dummy — flew aboard the New Shepard capsule. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith says the next New Shepard flight will occur soon, Space News reports.

The next New Shepard test flight should take place soon. “Hopefully in the next few weeks,” Smith said.

Blue Origin has been making updates to the vehicle, he said, intended primarily to improve operability rather than performance or reliability. Those upgrades took longer than expected, he said, hence the four-month gap since the last test flight.

Once the test flights resume, Smith said the company planned several flights to verify the vehicle’s performance before putting people on board. “What we want to do is get a series of flights, test out the incorporation of some of the changes that we’ve made, and then make sure we’ve got a stable configuration that we can repeat several times before we get to first human flight,” he said. That first crewed flight, he said, is expected by the end of the year.











Blue Origin Continues Qualification Testing of BE-4 Engine

BE-4 engines (Credit: Blue Origin)

Space News has an update on Blue Origin’s development of its BE-4 engine.

The chief executive of Blue Origin says he expects the company’s BE-4 engine to complete qualification testing by the end of the year as the company ramps up work on its New Glenn orbital rocket.

In an April 19 interview during the 34th Space Symposium here, Bob Smith said testing of the BE-4 engine, which uses methane and liquid oxygen propellants, was going well as the company stepped through a methodical process of increased durations and thrust levels.

“We continue to progress along the lines of changing the power levels and going from various throttle settings,” he said. That includes, he said, a test the company announced in March when the engine fired for 114 seconds at 65 percent of rated power. That duration is about half a typical mission duty cycle for the engine.

“We continue to roll through our test program and hope to qualify that engine by the end of the year,” he said. “We’re walking our way through that just to make sure we understand and characterize the engine fully.”