Blue Origin, started and owned by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has taken its next concrete steps to space launch. Yesterday, September 15, the company announced it has leased a launch site at Cape Canaveral, Florida and will be building rockets to fly from it at a nearby factory. First flights out of the Cape may take place by the end of the decade.
The Blue Origin plan is to launch heavy lift vehicles from Launch Complex 36 (LC-36), last used in 2005 and once the starting point for unmanned missions to the Moon, Mars, and the solar system, plus numerous weather, communications, and national defense satellites.
A clean-sheet factory is being built in Exploration Park, a 299-acre location outside the gates of Kennedy Space Center run by NASA and the state's economic development agency Space Florida. The company is putting $200 million into the facilities and expects to create 330 jobs.
Blue Origin intends to bring in raw materials in one end of the plant and deliver finished launch vehicles out of the other end. The only question is where the company's BE-4 engines will be built, with production possibly at an existing Blue Origin facility in Washington state. However, engines will undergo acceptance testing on a stand at LC-36.
Bezos gave few details about the two-stage rocket that he expects to put on the pad by 2020. The launch vehicle will use a pair of liquid methane/liquid oxygen BE-4 engines in the reusable first stage and a single liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen BE-3 engine in the second stage. After the two stages separate, the first stage will fly down to a soft landing on a barge or ship, with the hardware brought back to the factory for refurbishment and reuse.
It will also be certified for human flight at some point, since Bezos has plans to put people into orbit. Blue Origin has worked with NASA under the Commercial Crew program, proposing an Orbital Space Vehicle capable of carrying people to the International Space Station (ISS). NASA has also seed-funded testing of various Blue Origin hardware bits and pieces, including a pusher escape system.
Bezos is serious about space flight, with Blue Origin demonstrating technical competence and technology in a number of venues. In addition to working with NASA in testing space hardware, Blue Origin announced it had signed an agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to develop the BE-4 engine, with the American-made hardware going into ULA's Vulcan rocket. Blue Origin has a suborbital program operating in Western Texas and flew its first developmental test flight with the New Shepard in April 2015. In addition to providing capabilities for researchers and tourists, New Shepard and its associated operations are serving as a pathfinder for proving out the BE-3 engine and technologies for first stage flyback.
Yesterday's announcement comes at an interesting time for many players in the American launch business. Aerojet is reportedly offering $2 billion to buy ULA from parent owners Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Meanwhile, SpaceX plans to launch its Falcon Heavy from Florida in the spring of 2016, giving it the capability to put larger satellites into orbit.
While Bezos said he's not competing with SpaceX, Blue Origin is clearly getting into the reusable launch business and manned launch. SpaceX plans to demonstrate and ultimately move to first stage flyback with the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles, as well as one of two U.S.-owned vendors currently funded by NASA to demonstrate and provide transportation for astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).
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