There’s an easy knock against the space dreams of Jeff Bezos and his rocket company, Blue Origin: In its 24th year of existence, the company has yet to launch a single thing to orbit.
Blue Origin’s accomplishments to date are modest — a small vehicle known as New Shepard that takes space tourists and experiments on brief suborbital jaunts. By contrast, SpaceX, the rocket company started by the other high-profile space billionaire, Elon Musk, today dominates the launch market.
On Wednesday, Blue Origin hopes to change the narrative, holding a coming-out party of sorts for its new big rocket.
In the morning, at Launch Complex 36 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, the doors to a giant garage opened. The rocket, as tall as a 32-story building, lay horizontally on the trusses of a mobile launch platform.
The contraption was sitting on a transport mechanism that resembles several long mechanical centipedes, but with wheels, 288 in all, instead of feet. It began rolling slowly out and up a concrete incline, a quarter-mile trip toward the launchpad.
The rocket will undergo at least a week of tests before returning to the garage.
“I’m very confident there’s going to be a launch this year,” Dave Limp, the chief executive of Blue Origin, said in an interview. “We’re going to show a lot of progress this year. I think people are going to see how fast we can move.”
Named New Glenn in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, the powerful rocket will be capable of lugging about 100,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. That is a greater lifting capacity than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets but not as much as the Falcon Heavy.
New Glenn is one of several rockets expected to debut this year, adding to competition for SpaceX. In January, the Vulcan rocket, built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, made a successful maiden flight. It used two of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, proving their design met expectations. The first stage of New Glenn will use seven BE-4s.
Later this year, Ariane 6, a rocket designed by the European Space Agency, is expected to make its first flight, and SpaceX continues work on its gargantuan Starship rocket that is to take NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon.
Carissa Christensen, the chief executive of BryceTech, a space consulting company in Alexandria, Va., said the wealth of Mr. Bezos, founder of Amazon, gave Blue Origin credibility from the start.
”You’ve heard that saying,” she said. “Rockets run on money. And so, the depth of resources available to that company, the commitment of its founder, I think, makes it unique.”
But having the luxury of billions of dollars perhaps meant that Blue Origin did not always move with much urgency, she said. “Maybe that shifts you to a bit of a perfectionist model,” Ms. Christensen said.
Preparing for New Glenn’s maiden launch
The rocket now on the Blue Origin launchpad is not quite what will be launched later this year.
The tanks of the booster are the ones destined for space, but the rest of the booster may or may not be used for launch. Also, the BE-4 engines have not been installed yet. The second stage and the nose cone are just test versions.
Over the coming days, Blue Origin will practice filling the propellant tanks of the rocket.
A few miles away, a rocket factory is busy churning out pieces of future New Glenn rockets.
In 2015, Mr. Bezos announced plans for Blue Origin to build and launch rockets in Florida, with the first launch occurring by 2020. Within a couple of years, a giant Blue Origin factory rose on empty land not far outside of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but what was going on inside remained a mystery to outsiders.
Jarrett Jones, the senior vice president overseeing the development of New Glenn, said that the factory was empty when he joined Blue Origin in 2019.
“We’ve gone from basically just a building with tape on the floor to everything you see today,” he said during a tour of the factory at the end of January.
The capacious factory, spanning 650,000 square feet, is full but not jammed with partially built rockets. Pieces of the rocket enter one side of the factory and are assembled at stations extending down the factory floor, which is four football fields in length.
An upper section of a New Glenn booster towered in the middle of the factory, with massive fins at the top. “They’re about 15 feet long, about eight feet deep,” said Jordan Charles, the vice president who is responsible for the booster. “They do very little going up. They do a lot coming down. They help guide the vehicle.”
New Glenn’s boosters will land on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean and then launch again, for at least 25 flights. That is similar to how SpaceX lands and reuses its Falcon 9 boosters.
Unlike SpaceX, which took an incremental fail-until-you-succeed approach, Blue Origin hopes that everything will work on the first try and that its engineers already know enough from landing the much smaller boosters of New Shepard.
“The software, the guidance, it’s all very similar thing to what we’ve done on New Shepard and it gives us a lot of confidence,” Mr. Charles said.
Walking through a door, one enters another cavernous space, this one for the manufacture of the rocket’s nose cones, or fairings, which protect payloads during the ascent through the atmosphere. New Glenn, at 23 feet in diameter, is wider than most other rockets, and its fairing is twice as voluminous as the ones used by skinnier competitors, Blue Origin says.
After the completion of the launchpad tests, the rocket will be rolled back to the garage and the stages taken apart.
From there, Blue Origin will then begin putting together the final version of New Glenn for its first launch, installing the engines and test firing them.
No launch date has been announced. Blue Origin has not confirmed the first payload, but it might be two small identical NASA spacecraft for the mission of Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers, or EscaPADE, which will study the magnetic fields around Mars.
Mr. Jones said he expected two launches of New Glenn this year and hopes to speed up launches next year, to as many as one a month. Even coming close to that pace would be impressive.
SpaceX took years to reach its breakneck launch rate, which now averages about twice a week. The first Falcon 9 rocket lifted off in 2010. It was not until 2017 that the number of Falcon 9 launches reached double digits.
“We’ll have the equipment, tooling capability, launch system to be able to immediately go to 12 launches a year,” Mr. Jones said. Ultimately, the goal is 24 a year or more, he said.
From Kindles to space stations
Mr. Limp is not quite as certain that a second New Glenn launch will get off the ground this year. “It’s hard to look around that corner because you are going to learn so much from the first launch,” he said. “I would just say, I’ll be super happy if we get one launch this year, for sure.”
He became chief executive at Blue Origin in December, and at first glance seemed to be an odd choice to run a rocket company. He had worked at Amazon, overseeing the consumer electronics division that includes the Echo smart speakers, Kindle e-readers and Fire tablets.
As part of that job, he did have some space experience leading Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is planning to launch a constellation of internet satellites to rival SpaceX’s Starlink service.
About a year ago, he decided, “I still wanted to do something new, but I just didn’t want to be in the consumer electronics field.” Mr. Bezos suggested that maybe he could replace Bob Smith, who had decided to retire as head of Blue Origin.
“My initial reaction was, well, I don’t know a lot about rockets, maybe not,” Mr. Limp recalled.
But over a couple of months, Mr. Bezos convinced him “that he didn’t think Blue needed another rocket scientist,” Mr. Limp said. “We’ve got buildings full of them. But what it needed was some leadership around the scale that Blue had become.”
He said his experience in consumer electronics — taking conceptual ideas, making prototypes, turning them into finished products and then manufacturing millions of them — could help. Blue Origin is not going to build millions of rockets, but it will have to build more of them more quickly.
Mr. Limp also wants Blue Origin to make decisions more quickly. “Maybe what we were doing was seeking perfection in a lot of things,” he said.
Taking a little more risk “makes you move much, much faster,” he said.
Mr. Limp sees a future with many new business opportunities off Earth. ”My view is that the demand for orbital launch vehicles will be much higher than people are predicting five years out,” he said. “It’s not going to be like, Blue Origin wins, SpaceX loses, or vice versa. It’s going to be multiple winners.”
Blue Origin’s other projects include a lunar lander for NASA and the Orbital Reef space station. “They’re building foundational capabilities for the longer-term vision,” he said. “So there is a method to what we’re doing.”