Blue Origin Merritt Island rocket manufacturer ramps up efforts to debut in New Glenn

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After years of hiding in plain sight on the Space Coast, so to speak, Blue Origin's first New Glenn heavy rocket is finally expected to launch this year — with work accelerating inside the aerospace company's massive secret manufacturing campus on North Merritt Island.

“It's a fairly large facility. We're building boosters to support not just the first launch this year, but multiple launches a year — and we're quickly ramping them up to support a growing manifesto that includes commercial, civil, and hopefully national security here in the country,” said Lars Hoffmann, vice president of the company. Blue Origin National Security Sales, during a SpaceCom presentation at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando: “The future.”

At more than 320 feet long, New Glenn will be among the largest vehicles ever built. Built, launched and refurbished on the Space Coast, New Glenn has a reusable first stage, an expendable upper stage and a massive 7-meter diameter cone to enclose large payloads.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000, while Elon Musk started SpaceX in 2002. But the billionaires have taken markedly different paths in developing orbital rockets, said Laura Forczyk, founder and CEO of Atlanta space consulting firm Astralytical. . It doesn't view Blue Origin as a short-term competitor to SpaceX.

“They had the same amount of time as SpaceX. They had the same amount of time as SpaceX — but they were taking their time. They were very intentional. They had different areas of interest,” Forczyk said. .

SpaceX rockets accounted for 68 of the 72 Space Coast orbital launches last year, along with nine of the 10 launches so far in 2024. That represents 94% of the total 82 launches.

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In contrast, Forczyk said, Blue Origin's sightings focus on the evolution of the moon. Last May, Blue Origin was awarded a $3.4 billion contract to develop a human landing system for NASA's Artemis V mission to send astronauts to the moon.

“Right now, they're not even competing for the same customer base in the short term. In the long term, things may change. Because in the long term, we have (SpaceX's) Starship getting up and running and picking up the pace. We don't know what it's going to look like,” Forczyk said. “It's up to now.”

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“But what's interesting is how ULA's New Glenn, Vulcan and Starship compete in the long term,” she said.

Blue Origin's manufacturing campus on Merritt Island extends just south of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, dominating the skyline off Space Commerce Road within Exploration Park.

Hoffman gave a rare overview of the Merritt Island campus and Cape Canaveral Space Force's Launch Complex 36 — where the company has invested more than $1 billion in building state-of-the-art facilities — during SpaceCom, a space conference that attracted more people. Over 4,000 participants from all 50 states and over 80 countries.

Hoffman showed a PowerPoint slide during his Feb. 1 speech, outlining several white and blue rectangular buildings at Blue Origin's manufacturing complex. The buildings include facilities for cleaning vertical tanks and testing the first and second stages of the missiles; Precision cleaning facility; surface coating facility; and a warehouse on South Campus to store devices.

“It's still growing. We recently broke ground on some new buildings there. So stay tuned for more updates,” Hoffman told the crowd.

He also showed a photo taken inside a large industrial building where workers are building phases one and two of New Glen side by side along parallel assembly lanes.

Blue Origin has grown rapidly since 2019, and the company now employs more than 10,000 workers nationwide, while also occupying a “very large footprint” on Merritt Island, Hoffman said.

The first question Hoffman asked the audience: “Will New Glenn be launched this year?”

“Yes. Next,” he answered quickly, eliciting laughter.

Blue Origin officials are still tight-lipped about New Glenn's targeted inaugural launch date, which remains unannounced. This will come on the heels of the historic maiden launch on January 8 of United Launch Alliance's next-generation Vulcan rocket, which received praise from across the space industry. Meanwhile, SpaceX continues to test the Starship Heavy vehicle from its remote launch site in Texas, although both flights have so far ended in explosions.

Blue Origin at Launch Complex 36

Hoffman also showed a map marked LC-46, which is located about nine miles (as the crow flies) from the Merritt Island facilities. He said that crews finished rebuilding the launch complex last year, and extensive tests were conducted over the past year to prepare for the inaugural liftoff.

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“You see the integration facility there, with the ramp up to the launch table, and a water tower nearby to support the deluge system. It's been fully tested. We're ready to go. We're excited to launch,” Hoffman said. SpaceCom audience.

The 351-foot water tower — which ranks as one of the tallest in the world — and two nearby lightning protection towers can be seen on the horizon from the sand in downtown Cocoa Beach.

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From 1962 to 2005, LC-36 hosted 145 Atlas-Centaur launches, the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum reports. The facility was subsequently decommissioned, and Blue Origin leased the complex in 2015.

After launch, New Glenn's first-stage boosters will land atop ships in the ocean 620 miles away, return to shore, unload at Port Canaveral and return to LC-36 for inspections, maintenance and servicing before rejoining the fleet.

“I'm excited to see what the future of Blue looks like here,” said Rob Long, president and CEO of Space Florida. “I think they're hoping to launch it later this year — that will be exciting.”

“There are a lot of efficiencies that I think they can benefit from building close to their launch site, so they can turn around, replenish and launch. I think both Blue Origin and SpaceX have demonstrated the value of being able to manufacture, or at least do that.” “What I would call an overhaul and refurbishment of the boosters, to allow this pace to continue,” Long said.

“I think it makes a lot of sense logistically for a company to manufacture launch vehicles as close to the launch site as possible,” he said.

“Rapid intensification” of obvious increase

Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Washington. In a related project to New Glenn on the Cape, construction is continuing on the $120 million Kuiper Project broadband satellite processing facility at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. ULA Atlas V launched the first of two Kuiper prototype satellites in October.

New Glenn manifests itself in the launch of up to 27 Project Kuiper space missions over the course of five years. In contrast, SpaceX's Starlink broadband constellation has grown to 5,402 operational satellites as of Wednesday, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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New Glenn will also launch payloads from three of the world's six largest satellite operators: Eutelsat, JSAT and Telesat, according to an April 2022 Blue Origin press release.

“We look forward to the first launch of New Glenn later this year. We have four New Glenn boosters and 11 exhibits in production,” Sarah Blask, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin, said in an email.

“The goal of the New Glenn is to reduce cost through reusability – its first stage is designed to fly a minimum of 25 missions. It is a multi-faceted vehicle designed to meet the widest range of customer needs, and is capable of carrying 45 metric tons to a low level,” he said. Plask: “Earth orbit and 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit.”

“We knew our customers wanted more ways to transfer increased mass and volume into space, which is why we were the first to jump beyond the standard five-meter fairing,” she said.

Looking to the future, Forczyk cited the performance of a pair of Blue Origin-built BE-4 LNG engines that powered the first stage of ULA's Vulcan spacecraft into orbit last month. BE-4 engines would also propel New Glenn.

“It was impressive to see those engines flying on Vulcan. Now Vulcan is a different vehicle than New Glenn, but it's still really impressive to see Vulcan succeed the way it did,” Forczyk said.

“This gives me hope that New Glen will actually succeed when it is finally ready to go,” she said.

For the latest news from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and NASA's Kennedy Space Center, visit floridatoday.com/space.

Rick Neil He is Florida Today's space correspondent (for more of his stories, click here.) Call Neale at 321-242-3638 or [email protected]. Twitter/X: @Rick Neal1

Space is important to us, which is why we work to provide the highest coverage of industry and launch operations in Florida. Such journalism requires time and resources. Please support him by subscribing here.

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