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BE-3 engne test
Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine is tested at the company’s West Texas test site. The engine is now ready to power test flights of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle. (credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin’s suborbital plans are finally ready for flight

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Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company founded, and still largely funded, by’s Jeff Bezos, has worked in recent years to shed its reputation as being a secretive company. Last September, it announced it was working with United Launch Alliance (ULA) on development of a new engine, the BE-4, that ULA plans to use on a next-generation launch vehicle to succeed the Atlas V (see “Commercial crew and commercial engines”, The Space Review, September 22, 2014). It’s also been a part of NASA’s commercial crew efforts, a partnership that continues even though it did not bid on later phases of the program.

“The Blue Origin team did an outstanding job exploring the corners of what the BE-3 can do and soon we’ll put it to the ultimate test of flight,” said Bezos.

Blue Origin, though, got its start in suborbital spaceflight, with a program called New Shepard that became largely overlooked in the recent attention about its engine for ULA. The company has been less forthcoming about details about that work, even as Bezos talked up Blue Origin’s partnership with ULA and as the company sparred with SpaceX regarding access to a former shuttle launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center.

That work has stretched on for a number of years, including several test flights of earlier vehicle designs; one, in 2011, ended with the destruction of the vehicle as it lost control at supersonic speeds. However, last week the company did discuss a recent milestone in the long development of its suborbital vehicle, one that the company says should soon result in suborbital test flights.

Ready for “the ultimate test”

Last Tuesday, the company announced that it had completed acceptance testing on its BE-3 engine, which will power New Shepard. Developing in-house by the company, the BE-3 uses liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants and can produce up to 490,000 newtons of thrust. The engine can be throttled down to 90,000 newtons, a key characteristic for a vehicle whose propulsion will land vertically, under rocket power.

“We’ve recently completed acceptance testing, meaning we’ve accepted the engine for suborbital flight on our New Shepard vehicle,” Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson said in a call with reporters April 7. That marked the end of what he called a “very, very long development program” that featured 450 test firings of the engine and a cumulative run time of more than 500 minutes.

The completion of those tests sets the stage for Blue Origin to begin test flights of the vehicle later this year at its facility in West Texas. “We expect a series of flight tests with this vehicle,” flying in autonomous mode, he said. “We expect a series of dozens of flights over the extent of the test program.”

“We test, learn, refine and then test again to push our engines,” Bezos said in a Blue Origin press release. “The Blue Origin team did an outstanding job exploring the corners of what the BE-3 can do and soon we’ll put it to the ultimate test of flight.”

“We’re probably a few years away from selling tickets, at least from flying our first astronaut,” Meyerson said.

Initially, he said, those test flights would be about every month, depending on the progress they make. They would presumably become more frequent as the test program continues, although Meyerson didn’t offer details. That test program, he suggested, would take a couple of years to complete.

While Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace talk about potentially offering commercial suborbital flights by next year, depending on their pace of their own test programs, Meyerson suggested Blue Origin was not racing to get New Shepard into commercial service. “We’re probably a few years away from selling tickets, at least from flying our first astronaut,” he said, adding that the company was not disclosing price information. “But, we’re getting close, and we’re excited about where we are.”

The capabilities of New Shepard don’t appear to have changed much from previous announcements by the company. The vehicle will be able to carry three or more people (the number will depend on other payloads the vehicle may also carry on a given flight) to an altitude of 100 kilometers. While the vehicle’s propulsion module will make a powered landing using its BE-3 engine, the crew capsule will land under parachutes.

BE-4 and beyond

While Blue Origin held a press conference with reporters to discuss its BE-3 milestone and New Shepard plans, there were also plenty of questions about the company’s BE-4 work. The company had not discussed work on the engine since the September announcement of its partnership with ULA on it.

The BE-4 is significantly different than the BE-3, generating five times the thrust. It also uses a different propellant combination, with liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen. Such “hydrocarbon” engines have attracted interest as potential replacements for the Russian-manufactured RD-180 that powers the first stage of ULA’s Atlas V.

Meyerson, asked about work on the BE-4, said the company is testing two different elements of the engine in parallel. One involves the “powerpack,” including the engine’s preburner, main pump, boost pump, and main valves. The other is subscale tests of engine injectors.

The powerpack tests started last fall, and have continued on-and-off since then; Meyerson said those tests were slated to resume Thursday the 9th. The injector tests have also continued intermittently over the last six to eight months, he said, and, like the powerpack tests, were slated to resume last Thursday.

While the BE-4 engine was unveiled last September, work on the engine has been underway for three years. “As the primary propulsion provider for United Launch Alliance, the BE-4 offers the lowest cost, fastest path to production for an American-made engine,” he said. “We’re now on track to conduct full engine testing in 2016, and complete development of the engine by 2017, two to three years ahead of any alternative engine that’s out there.”

Meyerson didn’t name those alternative engines, but Aerojet Rocketdyne has been working on a liquid oxygen/kerosene engine called the AR1 that it has proposed as a replacement for the RD-180. Prior to the BE-4 announcement last September, the AR1 appeared to be the most likely candidate to replace the RD-180.

While Meyerson said the BE-4 would be ready in 2017, ULA has suggested that it would be 2019 before its new launcher would be ready for launch, and a few years after that before it completed Air Force certification for national security payloads.

ULA is expected to provide more information about its launch plans Monday in a press conference held in conjunction with the Space Foundation’s 31st Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. ULA is expected to use the press conference to announce the name of the new launch vehicle, selected from an online voting contest that included five names: Eagle, Freedom, GalaxyOne, Vulcan, and Zeus.

“We’re now on track to conduct full engine testing in 2016, and complete development of the engine by 2017, two to three years ahead of any alternative engine that’s out there,” Meyerson said

While Blue Origin is developing the BE-4 for ULA, it also has plans for an orbital launch vehicle of its own that could use both the BE-3 and BE-4 engines. “Blue Origin has this long-term goal of making space safe, reliable, and affordable so that millions of people can go,” Meyerson said, starting with the suborbital New Shepard. “But our long-term goal is build orbital launch vehicle capabilities.”

Meyerson said that orbital vehicle would use both the BE-3 and BE-4 engines, but didn’t discuss technical details. However, Meyerson noted that the company had plans for a variant of the BE-3, designated BE-3U, for use on upper stages that would feature a different nozzle.

The company also appears to be scouting out a Florida site to both build and launch its orbital vehicle. Florida Today reported last week that the company has been in negotiations with Space Florida, the state space development agency, about potential locations around Cape Canaveral for both manufacturing and launch. That included Space Florida’s proposed commercial launch site at Shiloh, just north of KSC, as well as sites on KSC and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station property.

Meyerson said last week that Blue Origin was looking at Florida as a potential manufacturing and launch site, but was also in discussions with other, unnamed states. The first launches of that vehicle, he said, would be “later in the decade.”

Meyerson said during last week’s teleconference with reporters—rare, but not unprecedented—that the company was working to be less secretive. “I hope you’ve seen that we’ve been a little bit more open as time has gone on,” he said.

However, that openness doesn’t apply for New Shepard testing, at least initially. “We’re not going to invite the media to those early tests,” he said. “But, as we get experience with the vehicle, there’s going to be many opportunities to have people there, real-time, to watch.”