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Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket approaches liftoff

Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket approaches liftoff


The space dreams of Jeff Bezos and his rocket company, Blue Origin, are easily dashed. Although the company has been in existence for 24 years, it has yet to launch anything into orbit.

Blue Origins' accomplishments so far have been modest, with a small craft known as New Shepard carrying space travelers for short, suborbital experiments. In contrast, SpaceX, the rocket company founded by another prominent space billionaire, Elon Musk, today dominates the launch market.

Blue Origin is hoping to change the narrative Wednesday with a party of sorts to unveil a new big rocket.

In the morning, the doors to a huge garage opened at Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The rocket was as tall as a 32-story building and rested horizontally on the truss of a mobile launch pad.

The device rested on a transport mechanism resembling several long mechanical centipedes, but with a total of 288 wheels instead of legs. It slowly began to roll and climb up the concrete slope, continuing its 400 meter journey towards the launch pad.

The rocket will undergo at least a week of testing before returning to the garage.

Blue Origin CEO Dave Limp said in an interview that he is very confident the product will be released this year. This year we will see great progress. I think people are going to see how fast we can move.

The powerful rocket, named New Glenn after John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, can carry about 100,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. This is a higher lifting capacity than SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, but not as much as the Falcon Heavy.

New Glenn is one of several rockets scheduled to debut this year, further intensifying competition with SpaceX. In January, the Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, made its maiden flight. He used two Blue Origins BE-4 engines and the design proved to be up to the mark. New Glenn's first stage will use seven of his BE-4s.

Later this year, Ariane 6, a rocket designed by the European Space Agency, is scheduled to make its maiden flight, and SpaceX continues to develop the giant Starship rocket that will take NASA astronauts to the moon.

Carissa Christensen, chief executive officer of Blytech, a space consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia, said Amazon founder Bezos' wealth gave Blue Origin credibility from the beginning.

You've heard that word before, she said. Rockets are powered by money. So I think the depth of resources available to a company, the commitment of its founders, is what makes it unique.

But having the luxury of billions of dollars may mean Blue Origin hasn't always acted with such urgency, she says. Maybe that turns you into a bit of a perfectionist model, Christensen said.

Preparing for the first launch of New Glens

The rocket currently on the Blue Origin launch pad is quite different from the one that will launch later this year.

While the booster's tank is destined for space, the rest of the booster may or may not be used for launch. Also, the BE-4 engine is not yet installed. The second stage and nose cone are test versions.

Over the next few days, Blue Origin will practice filling the rocket's propellant tanks.

A few miles away, a rocket factory is churning out parts for the future New Glenn rocket.

In 2015, Bezos announced plans for Blue Origin to build and launch rockets in Florida, with the first launch by 2020. Within a few years, a huge Blue Origin factory was built on vacant land not far from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. , but what was going on inside remained a mystery to outsiders.

Jarrett Jones, the senior vice president overseeing New Glenn's development, said when he joined Blue Origin in 2019, the plant was empty.

We went from basically just a building with tape on the floor to everything you see today, he said during a tour of the factory in late January.

The vast 650,000-square-foot factory is full, but not filled with half-assembled rockets. The rocket pieces enter one side of the factory and are assembled at stations spread across the factory floor the length of four football fields.

In the center of the factory loomed the top of the New Glenn booster, topped with a giant fin. They are about 15 feet long and about 8 feet deep, said Vice President Jordan Charles, who is in charge of the boosters. They barely rise. They come down a lot. They help guide the vehicle.

The new Glens booster is scheduled to land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean and then launch again, making at least 25 flights. This is similar to how SpaceX lands and reuses its Falcon 9 boosters.

Unlike SpaceX, which has taken an incremental failure-until-success approach, Blue Origin is confident that everything will go well on the first try, and that engineers have already made enough progress since the landing of New Shepard's much smaller booster. I hope you know.

The software, the guidance, all of that is very similar to what we did at New Shepard, and that gives us a lot of confidence, Charles said.

Walk through the door and you'll enter another cavernous space. This space is for manufacturing the rocket's nose cone, or fairing, which protects the payload during its ascent through the atmosphere. At 23 feet in diameter, New Glenn is wider than most other rockets, and its fairing volume is twice that of rockets used by its skinnier competitors, Blue Origin said.

Once the launch pad tests are complete, the rocket will be returned to the garage and the stage will be disassembled.

From there, Blue Origin will begin assembling the final version of New Glenn for its first launch, including engine installation and test firing.

A release date has not been announced. Blue Origin has not confirmed its initial payload, but it will be two identical small NASA probes for the Escape and Plasma Acceleration Dynamics Explorer (EscaPADE) mission to study the magnetic field around Mars. There is a possibility.

Jones said he expects there will be two New Glenn launches this year, and hopes to accelerate launches to once a month next year. Just getting close to that pace would be great.

SpaceX took years to reach its impressive launch rate, which now averages about two per week. The first Falcon 9 rocket was launched in his 2010 year. It wasn't until 2017 that Falcon 9 launches reached his double digits.

Jones said the company has the equipment, touring capabilities and launch systems to be ready for 12 launches a year. The ultimate goal is to have at least 24 events a year.

From Kindle to Space Station

Limp is less certain that a second New Glenn launch will reach orbit this year. It's hard to look around that corner, he said, because he's going to learn a lot from his first launch. All I can say is, yes, he would be very happy if he could launch one this year.

He took over as CEO of Blue Origin in December, and at first glance it seemed like an odd choice to run a rocket company. He worked at Amazon, where he oversaw the consumer electronics division, which included the Echo smart speaker, Kindle e-reader, and Fire tablet.

As part of that job, he gained experience in space by leading Amazon's Project Kuiper, which plans to launch a constellation of internet satellites to rival SpaceX's Starlink service.

About a year ago, he decided that I still wanted to do something new, but I didn't want to go into the consumer electronics field. Bezos suggested he could replace Bob Smith, who has decided to step down as head of Blue Origin.

My first reaction was, “Well, I don't know much about rockets, and maybe I never will,'' Limp recalled.

But Mr. Bezos spent months convincing Mr. Blue that he didn't think another rocket scientist was needed, Mr. Limp said. The building is full of them. But what was needed was leadership that matched Blue's scale.

He said his experience in consumer electronics, where he takes a conceptual idea, creates a prototype and turns it into a finished product, producing millions of products, will be helpful. Blue Origin isn't going to build millions of rockets, but it will need to build more rockets faster.

Limp also wants Blue Origin to be able to make decisions more quickly. He said that maybe what we were doing was trying to be perfect in a lot of things.

By taking a little more risk, you can move much faster, he said.

Limp sees a future with many new business opportunities beyond Earth. In my view, the demand for orbital launch vehicles will be much higher in five years than people are predicting, he said. It's not like Blue Origin wins and SpaceX loses, or vice versa. There will be multiple winners.

Blue Origins' other projects include NASA's Lunar Lander and Orbital Reef Space Station. They are building foundational capabilities for a long-term vision, he said. In other words, there is a method to what you are doing.




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