Blue Origin – Expecting A Lot Of Launches

In the news today is that Blue Origin (Bezos) did another launch. I’m not seeing why this is such hoopla, but it is. OK, so they put the personnel capsule on it, with a cutesy named dummy (Mannequin Skywalker), but the capsule has flown before as has the rocket. Yes, it (barely) got to the official demarcation of “Space” ( 66 miles up instead of the 60 limit – but the limit has other definitions), then landed back about where they began. Meaning this was a “hop and pop” without much velocity at the top of the run.

Basically straight up 60 miles, pop the capsule up a bit higher, and fall back down but don’t crash as the end.

To really be interesting, they need about 14,000 more miles per hour… That lets you do an orbit instead of just a pogo stick hop and pop. One hopes they have plans for some larger second stage bigger than just a tourist capsule. I suspect that will be their next rocket. The New Glenn. That’s what the wikis say, anyway.

The New Shepard reusable launch system is a vertical-takeoff, vertical-landing (VTVL), suborbital crewed rocket that is being developed by Blue Origin as a commercial system for suborbital space tourism. Blue Origin is owned and led by founder and businessman Jeff Bezos and aerospace engineer Rob Meyerson.

The name New Shepard makes reference to the first American astronaut in space, Alan Shepard, one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts, who ascended to space on a suborbital trajectory similar to that planned for New Shepard.
As of April 2018, Blue was expecting the first human-carrying test flight to occur before the end of 2018, but had not announced any date for when tickets would begin to be sold.
New Shepard vehicles 2018+

New Shepard 4 (NS4)—the fourth propulsion module to be built—will be the first one to actually carry passengers. Blue Origin have stated that they expect to fly the first human test-passenger in 2018.

Additional vehicles are under construction. An initial build order of six vehicles was planned, each one taking 9 to 12 months to construct. After the initial build, and after completing an extensive test flight program, Blue Origin intends to “let the demand for space tourism and research determine how many additional vehicles may be needed.”

Note this vehicle uses the BE-3 engines. The expectation is for about 100 launches / rocket before they are worn out. So first build is 6 vehicles and a target of 600 flights of fare paying passengers, the responding with more if they stay booked.

New Glenn orbital launch vehicle
Main article: New Glenn

The New Glenn is a 7-metre (23 ft)-diameter two- or three-stage orbital launch vehicle that is expected to launch prior to 2020.

The design work on the vehicle began in 2012. The high-level specifications for the vehicle were publicly announced in September 2016.

The first stage will be powered by seven BE-4 engines, also designed and manufactured by Blue Origin. The first stage is reusable, just like the New Shepard suborbital launch vehicle that preceded it. The second stage, and an optional third stage for some flights, are both intended to be expendable.

Orbital launch vehicle

The first stage is to be powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 single-shaft oxygen-rich staged combustion liquid methane/liquid oxygen rocket engine while the second stage will be powered by the recently qualified BE-3 tap-off cycle liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen rocket engine. The number of engines powering each stage has not been released, nor has the payload or gross launch weight specifications. No details were publicly released as of September 2015.

Blue Origin intends to launch the rocket from the historic Launch Complex 36, and manufacture the rockets at a new facility on nearby land in Exploration Park. Acceptance testing of the BE-4 engines will also be done in Florida.
In late 2014, Blue Origin signed an agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to co-develop the BE-4 engine, and to commit to use the new engine on an upgraded Atlas V launch vehicle, replacing the single RD-180 Russian-made engine. The new launch vehicle will use two of the 2,400 kN (550,000 lbf) BE-4 engines on each first stage. The engine development program began in 2011.

When announced in 2014, and still in March 2016, ULA expected the first flight of the new launch vehicle—the Vulcan—no earlier than 2019. As of March 2018, Blue intends to complete engine qualification testing by late 2018, but no date for the first launch event has been recently stated by ULA.

So the process looks to be make the BE-3 engine and use it to make a test bed for tech, then sell hop-and-pop space tourist rides of a few minutes each. Leverage that technical base (and revenue) to make a real rocket capable of putting mass on orbit. It also looks like there is an intent (hope?) to sell BE-4 engines for use on other rockets that will provide orbital services, but for modest sized payloads.

Note the 7 engines in the first stage of the New Glenn and 2 for the first stage of the Atlas V new version.

Blue Origin retains engine lead as House considers limitations on launch system funding
by Jeff Foust — June 27, 2017

Updated 6:30 p.m. Eastern June 28.

WASHINGTON — An independent assessment of rocket engine development delivered to a House committee last week has concluded that Blue Origin remains well ahead of Aerojet Rocketdyne despite a recent testing setback.

That assessment, provided in a closed-door meeting organized by the House Armed Services Committee June 23, comes as the full committee is scheduled to mark up a fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) on June 28 that would limit the Air Force’s ability to support launch vehicle development.

The article spends some time on the fact that Congress is prohibiting the military from developing full on “launch vehicles” but is letting them fund engine development. It looks like some kind of infighting over specific launch vehicle systems that I am not familiar with, and congress trying to funnel the money to their preferred recipients. Beyond that, it looks like there are 2 main “blessed” engine providers, but with Bezos being most blessed, and then the quantity to be made is interesting.

“This includes a continued focus on the development of a new American rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180, ensuring we do not lose existing and highly-capable launch vehicles, and prioritizing national security-specific requirements over new launch vehicles to protect assured access to space and end reliance on Russian engines,” the statement added.

The Defense Department opposes that language in the bill. In a document submitted to the committee and obtained by SpaceNews, it warned that the language would force it to abandon some ongoing vehicle development efforts and rely primarily on ULA’s Delta 4 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9.

“Section 1615 appears to force the Department to end the more than $300 [million] investment in the industry-developed systems and instead use a modernized Delta IV launch vehicle and/or the Falcon 9,” it stated, referring to the section of the NDAA that contains the funding restriction. The Falcon 9, it noted, cannot handle many national security missions, while the Delta 4 is significantly more expensive than alternative existing vehicles.

So kicking the Russian provider to the curb, and limiting the “vehicles” to a couple already known, but maybe not best for purpose, and assuring only 2 companies are really lined up for the replacement engines. Aerojet not tossing in the towel just yet said:

Aerojet Rocketdyne, in its statement, emphasized its experience with large-scale engines like the AR1, and with requirements for national security space launch, that give the company confidence that it can remain on schedule through the rest of the engine’s development. “Certified AR1 engines, in rate production, will be available in 2019 — before any competitor’s engine,” it stated.

Is it really that hard to make a knock off of a 20 year old Russian engine?

Oh Well… it’s only taxpayer money…

Blue Origin announced June 26 that it has decided to build that engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama. The company said it will make a $200 million investment to develop the facility, capable of producing up to 30 BE-4 engines per year. It anticipates hiring as many as 342 people to work at the factory.

Planning on 30 engines a year. That’s about 4 “New Glenn” worth per year + 1 Atlas V replacer (called Vulcan), or 15 Vulcan, or some other combination like 2 New Glenn and 8 Vulcan. Now near as I can tell the Vulcan has no intention of land / reuse of the engines, which seems a bit silly for an engine designed for many use cycles. But maybe I’m missing something.

IF the New Glenn has a similar goal of 100 flight reuse for the first stage, we’re looking at something like 200 to 400 flights worth of New Glenn production per year at that engine factory. Either that, or a whole lot of Vulcan flights tossing the engines at the end. Something just seems odd to me here. Are there really 15 Atlas V launches a year?

Looks a lot like about 5 to 8 / year average to me. (Odd cyclicality to it though)

Assuming it’s about 8, that’s 16 engines, leaving 14 for the New Glenn or 2 ships worth / year. 200 Launches worth (if, in fact, they can be re-used that many times.

Overall, that seems like an awful lot of intended launches being built by Blue Origin.

Interesting side note on the Vulcan (IF it finally gets built as stated):

The first stage tanks will be derived from those of the Delta IV, using two of the 2,400-kilonewton (550,000 lbf)-thrust BE-4 engines. At announcement in 2014, the engine is already in its third year of development by Blue Origin, and ULA expected the new stage and engine to start flying no earlier than 2019.

Vulcan will initially use an upgraded variant of the Centaur upper stage used on Atlas V, later to be upgraded to ACES. It will also use a variable number of optional solid rocket boosters, called the Graphite-Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL, derived from the new solid boosters planned for Atlas V. With a 4-meter diameter payload fairing it can use up to four SRBs, and with a 5-meter fairing it can use up to six SRBs.The first stage can optionally have from zero to six solid rocket boosters (SRBs),

In August 2016 ULA’s President and CEO said they intend to human rate both the Vulcan and ACES.

In 2016, ULA is designing two versions of the Vulcan first stage, one using the BE-4 with a 5.4 m (18 ft) outer diameter to support the less-dense methane fuel and an AR1 design with the same 3.81 m (12.5 ft) diameter as Atlas V for the denser RP-1 (kerosene) fuel.

Man rated, eh? Planning something we don’t know about? Or just hedging bets? Or what?

In Conclusion

What with Virgin Galactic headed for the “hop and pop” tourist market Real Soon Now, and Falcon Heavy flying, and the BFR in the wings, and now Blue Horizon about ready (supposedly this year) to start the first of several hundred “hop and pop” tourist runs, and then the New Glen lining up for a few hundred flights worth built per year, and then the Vulcan being built to be “Man Rated”:

It sure looks like we’re (USA) going from no real human launch ability hitching rides with the Russians, to a scale measured in hundreds / year worth, from up to 4 vendors; all in the next 2 years.

That seems a bit startling. It does depend on the WAG (seen in print, but still just a Wild Ass Guess until they do it) that the rockets are good for 100 reuse cycles, and the assumption that the engines are part of that 100 and not replaced as part of the refurbishing after a few flights.

It does look like the next couple of years are going to see a significant change in access and frequency of access to space. Certainly a “Watch this space” flag going up.

Subscribe to feed


About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in Tech Bits and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Blue Origin – Expecting A Lot Of Launches

  1. ossqss says:

    Those numbers seem a bit stretched. I can’t imagine that many launches even over a 5 year period. Maybe they are gonna start launching wrecked Tesla’s! ;-)

  2. E.M.Smith says:

    Yeah, that’s what bugs me too. The way I see it, the choices are:

    1) A lot of those engines going to Vulcan, not New Glenn. Or…

    2) That 100 life cycle is 90% marketing, and it will be more like 10 to 20 reuse, then done ( or use to lift bulk cheap commodities like water and O2 to orbit until they finally explode…)

    3) The shell will get reused 100 times, but the motors get replaced every 10. (or similar).

    4) “Management” is being way too optimistic and is in for a rude surprise.

    5) There’s one heck of a lot more $Billionaires in the world looking to burn a chunk on a joy ride than I’d ever suspected.

    But something just doesn’t seem right…

    My best guess is it’s some combination of 2, 3, and maybe 4.

  3. pouncer says:

    “Hop and pop” ? (With a brief stop at the top?)

    Is there no market for intercontinental passenger traffic at rocket speed? Or a military market for a vehicle that can launch a half dozen ninjas from Kansas and land in … oh I dunno, Chad maybe … less than a hour later?

  4. John F. Hultquist says:

    When a paying customer (Billionaire) fails to return, expect a lot of the next in line to forfeit their deposits.
    Billionaires have to keep a lot of balls in the air. To see all the balls crash for a whim will not endear “hop & pop” to finance and insurance pros.

  5. p.g.sharrow says:

    The 100 life cycle is an engineering term for firings or hot / cold cycles to possible failure. Or about 20-25 uses for each engine. Remember the Shuttles were rated for 50 flights but began to fail at 32. Rocket engines are in self-destruct as long as they exist due to thermal cycling and very rapid degradation during firing. Engine failure is not acceptable due to total mission cost. So the rating of 100 uses is a measure of quality not actual planned missions.
    I certainly would not want to ride one of these Roman Candles just for a short trip off planet, Even if you paid me……………………a lot!…pg

  6. E.M.Smith says:


    In sky diving, a “hop and pop” means to jump out of the airplane and immediately pull your rip cord opening the parachute (hop out and pop it open). Which is basically what the New Shepard is doing, tossing the capsule out at the top and then after a bit of a slow down the pop the ‘chute (instead of doing an orbit or something – just “up and down”)

    There is a bit market for orbital or even ‘sub-orbital over a distance’ (ballistic) and Musk as recognized this with his plans for the BFR to give one hour flights from just about anywhere to anywhere. (So Washington DC to Tokyo in a one hour hop…) I don’t know if Bezos has any similar plan for the New Glenn (his orbital capable rocket). Bezos seems more “incremental to orbit” while Musk is more “get me to Mars and find something folks will pay for on the way”.

    The problem with “rocket troop insertion” is that it is highly visible and you can easily be tagged on the re-entry. It’s actually better to do a stealth insertion via a HALO jump. All they see is an airplane in international air space (even 6 miles off shore) and then guys show up on the ground. A “squirrel suit” lets you move laterally a lot from 7 miles up… ( 35,000 feet – think even a 5:1 glide ratio and you have 35 miles laterally from airplane track to landing… with folks a bit too small and slow to trip a radar image).

    @John F.:

    That was why I was speculating they might use the motors for people for the first 1/2 of the life span, then move them over to some kind of cargo deliver the next 1/4 then the last 1/4 use them for cheap replaceable cargo (like water and TV Dinners…) If a New Sheppard blows up, the passengers would be prone to backing out; but if the “Water Lugger Barge One” blows up, who cares?


    Ah, that would straighten out a lot.

    Do you have a pointer to somewhere showing that’s the usage, or that the common usage is that way? ( I’m clearly missing some background on that and need to read up… so don’t know what to call that as a search term. “Sellers Puff Life Cycle” seems a bit over the top ;-)

    I’d happily ride one, in the first 1/4 of the life cycle… but not if I had to pay much for it…

  7. Tom says:

    Some curious items were in discussion for the month of April per BE-4.

    A likely problem achieving restart capability of the vacuum optimized BE-4, led to re-tasking the second stage of New Glenn to use two vacuum rated BE-3 rather than a single BE-4. This provides about half the thrust capability; but, perhaps burning twice as long compensates?

    Another issue is that the BE-4 burns a mixture of liquids methane/oxygen, while the BE-3 prefers hydrogen/oxygen. The hydrogen is between two to three times more bulk for the less dense fuel, thus requiring changes in the fuel tanks to accommodate the difference. Countering this negative, the LH/LOX engine gives about one-third more efficiency per pound propellant over methane fuel, in hydrogen’s favor.

    Blue Origin spoke of the engine substitution in regards to the initial New Glenn test flights staying on schedule. Perhaps this is a stop-gap measure to prevent a schedule slippage due to hardware issues, avoiding the perception of a hardware problem toward acquisition of launch contracts.

Comments are closed.