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BE-3 test
Blue Origin conducts a test of its BE-3 engine at its West Texas site earlier this year. The engine, using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, will power its New Shepard suborbital vehicle and upper stage of its future orbital vehicle. (credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin takes another small step towards human spaceflight

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The companies that comprise the entrepreneurial space, or NewSpace, industry have varying degrees of openness, but few—beyond any companies that have yet to publicly disclose their existence—are as secretive as Blue Origin. The company, founded and primarily funded by Jeff Bezos, has deliberately kept a low profile for more than a decade, only rarely disclosing the company’s activities and plans.

Company officials say that reputation for secrecy reflects a desire not to get too far ahead of what they’re doing. “I think the reality is that we’re just very quiet,” Brett Alexander, director of business development and strategy at the company, said at a human spaceflight symposium in October at the US Naval Academy. “We like to talk about things after we’ve done them, and not before that, and hopefully you’ll be hearing a lot from us in the future.”

“I think the reality is that we’re just very quiet,” Alexander, said. “We like to talk about things after we’ve done them, and not before that.”

Last week, the company decided to talk about something it had recently done. In a press release and teleconference Tuesday with reporters, both rare events for the company, Blue Origin announced a successful test of an engine it developed for use on its suborbital and orbital vehicles. The company also provided some hints, but again not many details, about its future plans.

BE-3 makes a simulated flight

The milestone Blue Origin announced Tuesday was a test of the BE-3, a liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine the company developed. The company recently performed a “mission duty cycle” test of the engine, firing it as if it was powering the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle on a typical flight. The engine fired at full thrust (490,000 newtons, or 110,000 pounds-force) for 145 seconds to simulate the boost phase of the flight, then shut down for four and a half minutes before firing again at less than a quarter of its boost phase thrust to simulate a powered landing.

That demonstration was the latest in a series that featured more than 160 starts of the engine and a cumulative run time of 9,100 seconds, or more than two and a half hours. Those tests started in January, Blue Origin president and program manager Rob Meyerson told reporters Tuesday, at the company’s test site in West Texas. “That equates to an average about a test every two days, and on a regular basis we conducted three or four tests in a day,” he said. “So we’re moving at a pretty rapid pace.”

The engine, designed entirely in-house at Blue Orgin, sets itself apart from other engines, particularly those that use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants, because it is restartable, reusable, and deeply throttlable, Meyerson said. It makes use of a “tap off cycle” where hot gasses are tapped from the combustion chamber wall to power the turbines on the engine’s turbopumps. That, he said, makes it simpler than alternative engine designs and has a “graceful shutdown mode” that is well suited for human spaceflight.

The company had earlier tested the thrust chamber of the engine at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi as part of Blue Origin’s Commercial Crew Development phase 2 (CCDev-2) award from NASA, a funded Space Act Agreement the company received to mature several key technologies for a proposed future orbital crew vehicle. The latest test was done under an unfunded extension of Blue Origin’s CCDev-2 award announced earlier this year, after Blue Origin elected not to seek an award in the next round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

The test, Meyerson said, was one of three milestones in that unfunded agreement. The other two milestones, he added, are reviews of cryogenic propellant tanks for New Shepard and an interim design review of the company’s orbital space vehicle, but did not disclose what progress the company made on those.

While Blue Origin elected not to continue in the program, it was pleased with how the CCDev-2 program helped the company. “That testing that was performed under CCDev-2 allowed us to accelerate this program by about a year,” Meyerson said. “The partnership with NASA was extremely valuable to us. We think there was great value achieved on both sides.”

NASA was also pleased with the test. “Blue Origin has made steady progress since the start of our partnership under the first Commercial Crew Development round,” said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, in a NASA press release. “We’re thrilled to see another successful BE-3 engine test fire.”

Future plans

Blue Origin initially intends to use the engine in the New Shepard suborbital vehicle. However, Meyerson said the company is also planning to use a derivative of the engine to power the upper stage of the company’s planned orbital vehicle. This variant, called the BE-3U, would have a different nozzle than the BE-3 to account for the different engine expansion ratio at higher altitudes. Other changes to the engine are also possible, he said, since it will be expendable, rather than reusable as on the suborbital vehicle.

Meyerson said we could expect the company to start flying New Shepard “in the next several years” while the company develops an orbital vehicle in parallel with first flights in the “2018 timeframe.”

Meyerson didn’t go into details about the design of that orbital vehicle, including the configuration of the lower stage. “There’s a number of variants that we are considering. We’re not providing details of the orbital vehicle at this time,” he said, beyond it potentially using a cluster of engines in a reusable first stage.

The company’s focus on engine development, Alexander said during a panel session at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in New Mexico on October, was driven by a lack of available options for engines that suited their needs. “We would have much rather gone out and bought an engine off the shelf, but what we needed was low cost, highly reusable, highly operable, deep throttling for the vertical landing, and we didn’t find that out there,” he said. “If we did find it, it wouldn’t have been at a price point that we would have liked, so we’ve been developing that in-house.”

In the briefing with reporters, Meyerson tried to stay away from speculation about future plans at all. “We’re in the development phases now, so we’re not going to talk about flight schedules, pricing, or any other details like that,” he said at the beginning of the teleconference. Asked later for some general timeline of activity, Meyerson said we could expect the company to start flying New Shepard “in the next several years” while the company develops an orbital vehicle in parallel. For the latter, Meyerson offered a more specific date for its first orbital flights: the “2018 timeframe.”

At ISPCS, Alexander said the next vehicle in the New Shepard program would be flying “shortly,” but offered no details on the timeline for those tests. He had earlier said the company planned to perform “tens, if not low hundreds of flights” on its suborbital vehicle before attempting crewed orbital flights. (The 2018 date for the first orbital flight, Meyerson said last week, would be an uncrewed mission.)

Unlike other suborbital vehicle developers, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin has not started selling flights for space tourists, researchers, or other customers. “We’re sort of a built it first, and then sell it later organization,” Alexander said at ISPCS. “But obviously we intend to be in that business within a five-year time period.”

Much of the attention that Blue Origin has received has had little to do with its suborbital or orbital vehicles. The company was one of two, along with SpaceX, to submit proposals to lease Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), a former Space Shuttle pad, at Kennedy Space Center. Before NASA could award a lease, but with signs the agency was leaning towards a deal with SpaceX that would grant the company exclusive use of the pad, Blue Origin filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Blue Origin said it was instead proposing a multi-user arrangement for LC-39A that would allow it and other companies, including SpaceX, to make use of the pad as needed. “The proposal is about making fullest commercial use of LC-39A as a commercial asset, not when Blue Origin is going to fly its first vehicle,” Meyerson said Tuesday. “We believe the proposal we submitted makes the fullest commercial use of the asset, and we strongly believe we have a good proposal.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was sharply critical of Blue Origin’s protest, suggesting it was an effort by United Launch Alliance (ULA), who has partnered with Blue Origin in the past on the Commercial Crew Program, to block SpaceX. Blue Origin, he told Space News, “has not yet succeeded in creating a reliable suborbital spacecraft, despite spending over 10 years in development.” He added that SpaceX would be willing to accommodate Blue Origin if it did have an orbital vehicle ready to use LC-39A in the next five years, but infamously added, “I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”

Musk said SpaceX would be willing to accommodate Blue Origin if it did have an orbital vehicle ready to use LC-39A in the next five years, but infamously added, “I think we are more likely to discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct.”

SpaceX, though, did shift its position as a result of the protest, saying it was willing to support other users for LC-39A rather than an exclusive-use lease it originally sought. A decision by the GAO on the protest is currently expected no later than this Thursday, according to the GAO website.

Whether or not Blue Origin has an orbital vehicle of some kind ready to fly in 2018, the company has adopted a long-term vision summed up in the company’s Latin motto: “Gradatim Ferociter,” roughly translated as “step by step, with ferocity.” It has the luxury of this approach because of the support of its primary financier, Bezos. Other than the $25.7 million it received from NASA during the first two rounds of the Commercial Crew Program, the company has been funded by Bezos; Alexander said at the Naval Academy symposium in October that this accounted for “well more than 90 percent” of the company’s total funds to date.

“Fundamentally, we are on a journey that is about changing spaceflight from being dangerous and expensive into something that’s accessible to a broader sector of humanity,” Alexander said. “We view it as a long-term endeavor, something that’s 20, 30, 40 years in the making.”