Back in February, Professor Brian Cox traveled here to Mojave with his friends Richard and Sam Branson to watch the third glide flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity.
Bowled over by what he saw even before the suborbital tourism vehicle glided overhead, Cox gave what amounted to a rousing endorsement of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo to a gathering of company employees.
“People ask me a lot because I’m a space geek and I’m obviously an evangelist for space, ‘Would you fly to space?” Cox said with Richard Branson seated beside him. “And I’ve always said, ‘Well yes and no, because in some sense it’s a dangerous thing to do.’ However, the moment I walked in this hangar and saw that aircraft, I thought, I want to get on that aircraft. So the answer is now is 100 percent yes.”
What was not widely known at the time was that Cox was filming a BBC-commissioned documentary about commercial space. And the company the corporation commissioned to co-produce it, Sundog Pictures, is owned and run by none other than Cox’s good friend, Sam Branson.
Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year.
But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver….
Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”
In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept….
Technically, New Shepard is the precursor of the much more ambitious New Glenn, Blue Origin’s multi-stage rocket program that will launch astronauts and satellites into orbit. (The Virgin Galactic design is an evolutionary dead end – it cannot be scaled up for orbital flight.) As he did with Amazon, Bezos has always had a very clear-eyed idea of what it would cost to get into the business, of the technical challenges, and of the time needed to master them.
It’s a good story that’s worth a read. I did notice one factual error: the tail stall and inverted spin that SpaceShipTwo experienced during a flight test occurred in 2011, not 2013.
In what is likely a surprise to no one, United Launch Alliance’s CEO said this week the company is leaning toward selecting Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in the first stage of its new Vulcan rocket — providing upcoming engine tests go well.
That would leave rival Aerojet Rocketdyne and its AR1 engine without a booster to fly on.
In an interview during the 33rd Space Symposium here, Tory Bruno said that tests of the BE-4 engine, scheduled to begin “very soon” at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, are the last major hurdle the engine must clear before ULA decides to use it on Vulcan. (more…)
WASHINGTON, DC (NAA PR) — The National Aeronautic Association (NAA) announced last evening at their Spring Awards Dinner that the Blue Origin New Shepard has been named as the recipient of the 2016 Robert J. Collier Trophy “… for successfully demonstrating rocket booster reusability with the New Shepard human spaceflight vehicle through five successful test flights of a single booster and engine, all of which performed powered vertical landings on Earth.”
Our New Shepard flight test program is focused on demonstrating the performance and robustness of the system. In parallel, we’ve been designing the capsule interior with an eye toward precision engineering, safety, and comfort. Here’s a sneak peek.
If you happen to be attending the 33rd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs April 3-6, come see this for yourself. The high-fidelity capsule mockup will be on display alongside the New Shepard reusable booster that flew to space and returned five times.
Although the BE-4 turbopump is smaller than your refrigerator, it generates 70,000 horsepower from a turbine running at nearly 19,000 revolutions per minute that pumps cryogenic propellants to pressures just under 5,000 pounds per square inch. To react the forces generated by the rotating turbine and impellers inside the pump, production rocket turbopumps to date have used traditional ball and roller bearings. For BE-4, we’re doing something different – we’re using hydrostatic bearings. (more…)
Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos is expected to announce something on Tuesday in a speech at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, DC.
I’m guessing it will be an elaboration on the company’s plansfor establishing a base at the south pole of the moon. He also will likely provide updates on the testing schedule for the BE-4 engines (pictured above), development of the New Glenn booster, and construction of the company’s manufacturing facility in Florida.
Jeff Bezos has submitted a plan for developing a moon base to NASA and the Trump Administration.
The latest to offer a proposal is Jeffrey P. Bezos, whose space company Blue Origin has been circulating a seven-page white paper to NASA leadership and President Trump’s transition team about the company’s interest in developing a lunar spacecraft with a lander that would touch down near a crater at the south pole where there is water and nearly continuous sunlight for solar energy. The memo urges the space agency to back an Amazon-like shipment service for the moon that would deliver gear for experiments, cargo and habitats by mid-2020, helping to enable “future human settlement” of the moon. (Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, owns The Washington Post.)
“It is time for America to return to the Moon — this time to stay,” Bezos said in response to emailed questions from The Post. “A permanently inhabited lunar settlement is a difficult and worthy objective. I sense a lot of people are excited about this.”
Blue Origin’s proposal, dated Jan. 4, doesn’t involve flying humans, but rather is focused on a series of cargo missions. Those could deliver the equipment necessary to help establish a human colony on the moon — unlike the Apollo missions, in which the astronauts left “flags and footprints” and then came home.
The prospect of a lunar mission has several companies lining up to provide not just transportation, but also habitats, science experiments and even the ability to mine the moon for resources.
The governor’s office said the budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year starting July 1 includes $34 million for launch complex improvements that “will help attract more commercial activity to the area.”
Space Florida confirmed the total includes $17 million from the Florida Department of Transportation to help prepare Launch Complex 36, a state-run pad last used in 2005, into a site for Blue Origin’s giant New Glenn orbital rockets. The company also plans to build an engine test stand, incorporating the adjacent Launch Complex 11.
Blue Origin, the private space firm started by Amazon.com’s billionaire founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, will match the state’s investment, resulting in the $34 million budget figure cited by the state.
Bezos and Scott in September 2015 visited Launch Complex 36 to announce Blue Origin’s plans to build and launch rockets locally.
“The pad has stood silent for more than 10 years — too long,” Bezos said then. “We can’t wait to fix that.”
Robert Goddard’s first rockets used compressed gas to force the liquid propellants into the engine thrust chambers. While simple in design and a logical starting point, he quickly realized the limitations with this approach: it requires thick-walled heavy propellant tanks and limits the engine’s chamber pressure and performance, both of which limit payload capacity. The answer was turbopumps. Store the propellants in low-pressure light tanks, and then pump the propellants up to high pressure just ahead of injection into the main chamber.
For even more performance, you can add one or more boost pumps ahead of the main pumps. We’ve done that on the oxidizer side of our BE-4 engine. Our Ox Boost Pump (OBP) design leverages 3-D additive manufacturing to make many of the key components. The housing is a single printed aluminum part and all of the stages of the hydraulic turbine are printed from Monel, a nickel alloy. This manufacturing approach allows the integration of complex internal flow passages in the housing that would be much more difficult to make using conventional methods. The turbine nozzles and rotors are also 3-D printed and require minimum machining to achieve the required fits.
The OBP was first demonstrated last year in testing, where we validated its interaction with a main pump. The second iteration of the OBP for BE-4 is now in test. We’ve also just finished assembly of the unit that we’ll install for the first all-up BE-4 engine test.
We’ll keep you posted on how our BE-4 powerpack and engine testing progresses.
It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.
A New Direction for NASA?
NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.
Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.
President elect Donald Trump has named commercial space backer Charles Miller to the NASA landing team amid reports that similar minded advocates will be added to transition group.
Miller is president of NexGen Space LLC, a company that advises clients on commercial, civil and national security space. He previously served as NASA’s senior advisor for commercial space.
The Wall Street Journalreports that Trump officials are also working on appointing Alan Stern, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Alan Lindenmoyer, who formerly managed NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. Both nominations are in the process of being vetted for conflicts of interest.
Just a very short note to update you on the 750,000 square-foot New Glenn rocket factory we’re building in Florida. The team has made extraordinary progress—as you can see here, the first steel is now going up.
And again, here’s an image of what it will look like by the end of 2017.
For BE-4, not only do we have to design the engine itself, we also have to develop custom tools to make it. One of these tools is an automated electrical discharge machining (EDM) drilling machine. The EDM precisely locates and burns more than 4,000 tightly dimensioned holes into the nozzle and main combustion chamber, providing entry to the regenerative cooling channels.
As far as we know, this particular EDM machine is the only one of its kind in the world. It has 11 axes of motion allowing for precise hole location and accuracy within a few thousands of an inch. Its dual-head design results in reduced cycle time for the drilled holes. Brass multichannel electrodes are used to drill the holes. Water can be pumped through the electrode in order to speed up the drilling cycle. The use of water also helps flush the hole and remove the powder-like foreign object debris generated by the process. This eliminates the concern for plugging cooling channels, which can easily occur with conventional drilling methods. A pair of automated electrode-changing stations allows the EDM to continuously operate for long cycle times at an average rate of one hole every 90 seconds.
Building and operating custom tools of this magnitude is a big investment, but it’s critical for developing an engine that will power America’s access to space in the future.
A pretty wise investment, if you ask me.
PS: Blue Origin is hiring. Check out our Careers page and apply.