Blue’s big year ahead

The propulsion module for Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle after landing on the tenth test flight of overall vehicle program January 23 in West Texas. (credit: Blue Origin)

Last month, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo finally reached space—or, at least, one definition of it—when the VSS Unity spaceplane flew to an altitude of nearly 83 kilometers in the skies above Mojave, California, passing the 50-mile altitude used by US government agencies for awarding astronaut wings (see “SpaceShipTwo finally makes it to space*”, The Space Review, December 17, 2018). Immediately after the flight, Virgin founder Richard Branson said commercial flights would begin some time in 2019 after a few more test flights, a schedule he reiterated last week in a television interview to announce a partnership with athletic apparel company Under Armour to provide uniforms for SpaceShipTwo customers and crew.

Flying to space is old hat, though, for another company developing commercial suborbital vehicles, Blue Origin. Its New Shepard vehicle has flown ten times, most of which flew to altitudes beyond not just 80 kilometers but also the 100-kilometer Karman Line, “the internationally recognized line of space,” Ariane Cornell, head of astronaut strategy and sales at Blue Origin, said during a webcast last Wednesday of the latest New Shepard test flight at the company’s West Texas launch site.

That test flight was intended to demonstrate a “nominal flight configuration,” she said, with the vehicle flying like it would on a fully operational test flight. And, on that flight, New Shepard once again broke the Karman Line, with its crew capsule reaching a peak altitude of nearly 107 kilometers before descending under parachutes to a landing a little more than ten minutes after liftoff.

But, unlike last month’s SpaceShipTwo flight, there was no one on board this or previous New Shepard flights; no crew in the crew capsule. Instead, the capsule carried eight experiments for NASA’s Flight Opportunities suborbital research program, including investigations on topics ranging from fluid mechanics in propulsion systems to collisions of dust particles in microgravity.

The goal, of course, is to carry people: the capsule is designed to carry six people, all customers, on suborbital flights. (Unlike SpaceShipTwo, which requires two pilots on board even for test flights, New Shepard is controlled entirely from the ground.) And, the company says, those first flights with people on board will take place some time this year.

“Our next milestone is taking people into space,” Cornell said during the webcast of last week’s test flight. The current crew capsule, and corresponding propulsion module, are intended for use only for flying payloads, she said. However, the newest propulsion module, delivered to West Texas late last year, is intended for use on crewed flights, with a new human-rated crew capsule to follow.

“We’re aiming for the end of this year, by the end of this year,” for carrying people to space, she said, “but as we have said before, we are not in a rush. We want to take our time. We want to do this right.”

Another sign that Blue Origin is not in a rush to fly people is that the company hasn’t started selling tickets, or even set a price for them. That came up during a panel session in early January at the AIAA SciTech Forum in San Diego whose participants included Cornell. That event used an online platform for people to submit and vote on questions for participants, and one about Blue Origin’s ticket plans soared to the top of the list.

“We’re not selling tickets yet. We have not selected a price yet, despite what you might have read,” Cornell said. That was a reference to a report last summer that Blue Origin was planning to sell tickets for between $200,000 and $300,000; Virgin Galactic has been selling tickets for $250,000 but Branson said the company would likely increase the prices by an unspecified amount in the near future.

“We don’t have a price yet,” Cornell said. “We haven’t determined when we’re going to sell tickets.”

When it does, though, the company has suggested it may offer alternative means for those who can’t pay the full ticket price to go on a New Shepard flight. The company may be looking to avoid any backlash that commercial spaceflight is only for the wealthy. Or, as an audience member put it during a session of the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board in Washington earlier this month, “Are you thinking about how to make this not just a new place for the rich kids of Instagram to go?”

“Space is a very expensive endeavor,” Cornell said at the San Diego event. “That said, we are going to find ways to make sure that it’s not just the ultra-wealthy that are going to be able to fly to space.” She didn’t elaborate on what those ways might be.

New Shepard is not Blue Origin’s only major project, or course. The company is developing its own orbital launch vehicle, New Glenn, which will be powered by the company’s new BE-4 methalox engine. That engine will also be used by United Launch Alliance’s next-generation launch vehicle, Vulcan, set to make its first flight in 2021, the same year as New Glenn.

Forty-eight hours after New Shepard made its latest test flight, company executives and elected officials gathered in Huntsville, Alabama, for the groundbreaking of a $200 million factory that will produce BE-4 engines in quantity. The factory, set to open in March 2020 and create more than 300 jobs, will be able to produce dozens of BE-4 engines a year. It will also produce the BE-3U engine, a version of the BE-3 liquid-hydrogen/liquid-oxygen engine flying on New Shepard modified for use on the second stage of New Glenn.

Blue Origin announced plans to build the factory in Huntsville a year and a half ago, but waited until ULA formally selected the BE-4 for Vulcan, and secured funding from the Air Force’s Launch Service Agreement program to support its development, before going ahead with construction of the factory.

While Blue Origin builds the factory, it is still working to complete development of the engine itself, which has been undergoing testing for more than a year at the same West Texas site where New Shepard flies. “It will be a true marvel of engineering when we complete its development this year,” Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, said of the BE-4 during remarks at the groundbreaking. “We are currently rocking our test stands out in West Texas.”

Smith also announced that, in addition to the Huntsville factory, it’s finalizing an agreement with the Marshall Space Flight Center to use Building 4670, a test stand originally developed for Saturn V testing more than 50 years ago. The company signed a Space Act Agreement with the center last year that covered a “suitability analysis and preliminary facility preparations” at the site.

“Through this agreement, we’ll provide for the refurbishment, restoration and modernization of this piece of American history,” Smith said at the groundbreaking event.

The factory groundbreaking was welcomed by officials ranging from members of Congress to the governor of Alabama and the mayor of Huntsville, all of whom spoke at the event. “Today is a day of destiny,” proclaimed Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), whose district includes Huntsville.

That comment might be a bit of hyperbole, but the day was certainly a milestone in Blue Origin’s efforts to realize the company’s vision, espoused by its founder, Jeff Bezos, of millions of people living and working in space. But before people can live and work in space, they have to be able to get there.


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