Blue Origin has pulled ahead in the suborbital space race with an unexpected, successful test flight of its New Shepard rocket.


It’s notable that Blue Origin continues to make progress despite being rejected by NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The mantra heard at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference says that the debate between government and commercial space is over — the only correct way to go into space is through “public-private partnerships.” This flight shows that the debate is, in fact, far from over and private enterprise should not be counted out.

The question now is how quickly Blue Origin can turn New Shepard around between flights. The key to low-cost operation is achieving a high flight rate. With luck, we will see many more flights of New Shepard beginning in the very near future.

Written by Astro1 on November 23rd, 2015 , Blue Origin

United Launch Alliance Vulcan rocket logo

At a press conference on Monday, United Launch Alliance CEO Tony Bruno unveiled long-awaited plans for the company’s next-generation launch system.

The new launcher, designed to replace the Boeing Delta and Lockheed-Martin Atlas rocket families, is currently named Vulcan. (Although, Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace has protested ULA’s use of the name, a matter which may be resolved in court.)

ULA says the Vulcan rocket will cut launch costs in half through what the company calls “smart reusability.” Rather than attempting to recover the entire first stage, like their competitor SpaceX, ULA will recover and reuse only the main engines, which represent 90% of the stage’s cost. To protect the engines during reentry, ULA will use an inflatable aerodynamic heat shield, which the company is developing under a NASA technology demonstration program. After reentry, the engine pod will deploy a parafoil for further deceleration. When the engine pod has slowed sufficiently, a heavy-lift helicopter will snag the parafoil and carry the engines to a waiting barge. (Air grab is a technique that has been used before, to recover film capsules from spy satellites, but it has never been used to recover engines.)

As expected, the Vulcan first stage will use two methane-fueled BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. The stage will also accommodate up to six solid-fueled strap-on motors. The combination of engines and solid-fueled motors will give Vulcan about 20% greater payload capability than the Atlas V.

If ULA meets its planned schedule (which the company admits is challenging), Vulcan will begin flying in 2019 using the existing Centaur upper stage powered by Pratt & Whitney RL-10 engines. Later, the Centaur will be replaced by an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES), which will allow Vulcan to achieve the same payload capability as the Delta IV Heavy. For ACES propulsion, ULA is evaluating new engine designs, from Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace, in addition to the RL-10.

ULA is also taking a novel approach to second-stage reusability. Rather than returning the stage to Earth for refurbishing, ULA is designing the stage so it can be restarted and refueled on orbit. This is possible due to an advanced integrated fluids system, which captures boil-off gasses from the liquid-oxygen and -hydrogen tanks. A small internal-combustion engine (about the size of a lawn-mower engine, but with much higher performance) will burn those boil-off gasses. The integrated fluids system will provide vehicle power, depressurize the propellant tanks, and provide attitude-control thrust. This system will allow the stage to operate on-orbit for weeks or months, rather than hours, with unlimited engine restarts. It will be able to maneuver between various orbits in the Earth-Moon system and return to a space station in Low Earth Orbit for refueling and reuse.

The internal-combustion engine for the integrated fluids system will incorporate race-car technology developed by the Roush Fenway Racing team.

United Launch Alliance Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage (ACES)

From a geopolitical and national-security viewpoint, the first stage is most important. It will eliminate ULA’s dependence on Russian rocket engines, which now power the Atlas V. But for space exploration and development, the advanced upper stage may prove far more interesting. ULA is arguably playing catch-up with the first stage, working to achieve low cost and reusability which SpaceX is already demonstrating in the Falcon 9. Recovering the main engines may save 90% of the vehicle cost, but it will also limit flight rate since the engines will have to be integrated into a new vehicle. (Based on comments made during the press conference, ULA seems to feel that 20 launches per year would be a large market.)

With the new upper stage, however, come new capabilities. The flexibility of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage will enable a new mode of operations, which ULA calls distributed lift. The ability to reuse the upper stage as a space tug means that payloads do not need to fit on a single rocket, but can be assembled on orbit. That, in turn, means more efficient payload packaging and innovative architectures. ULA believes that distributed lift will enable concepts such as commercial habitats, propellant and water depots, asteroid mining, and lunar bases.

United Launch Alliance "distributed lift" concept

Written by Astro1 on April 15th, 2015 , Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, XCOR Aerospace


The United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin have announced an agreement to jointly develop the BE-4, a new American rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 currently used on ULA’s Atlas rocket.

The agreement calls for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by both companies on their next-generation launch systems.

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Written by Astro1 on September 17th, 2014 , Blue Origin

Boeing/DARPA Experimental SpacePlane (XS-1) concept

Following DARPA’s announcement of three Experimental SpacePlane (XS-1) teams, the Boeing Company released an illustration of its XS-1 design concept.

“Our design would allow the autonomous booster to carry the second stage and payload to high altitude and deploy them into space,” said Will Hampton, Boeing XS-1 program manager. “The booster would then return to Earth, where it could be quickly prepared for the next flight by applying operation and maintenance principles similar to modern aircraft. Drawing on our other innovative technologies, Boeing intends to provide a concept that uses efficient, streamlined ground infrastructure and improves the turnaround time to relaunch this spacecraft for subsequent missions.”

Boeing and its subcontractor Blue Origin will receive $4 million for the XS-1 Phase I study. DARPA plans to hold a Phase II competition next year for the follow-on production order to build the vehicle and conduct demonstration flights.

Steve Johnston, director of Boeing’s Phantom Works Advanced Space Exploration division, said that “Developing a vehicle that launches small payloads more affordably is a priority for future US Defense Department operations.”

Written by Astro1 on July 15th, 2014 , Blue Origin, Boeing, Military Space

DARPA Experimental SpacePlane-1 (XS-1) launch

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has announced the selection of three teams to conduct Phase One design studies for the agency’s Experimental SpacePlane 1 (XS-1).

DARPA has selected Boeing (working with Blue Origin), Masten Space Systems (working with XCOR Aerospace), and Northrop Grumman Corporation (working with Virgin Galactic) to design the reusable experimental spaceplane, which is expected to fly ten times in ten days, fly to Mach 10+ at least once, and launch a 3,000-5,000 pound payload to orbit.

DARPA Experimental SpacePlane-1 (XS-1) staging

Program manager Jess Sponable said that DARPA “chose performers who could prudently integrate existing and up-and-coming technologies and operations, while making XS-1 as reliable, easy-to-use and cost-effective as possible. We’re eager to see how their initial designs envision making spaceflight commonplace—with all the potential military, civilian and commercial benefits that capability would provide.”

According to a DARPA press release, the XS-1 program “aims to develop a fully-reusable unmanned vehicle that would provide aircraft-like access to space and deploy small satellites to orbit using expendable upper stages. XS-1 seeks to deploy small satellites faster and more affordably, and develop technology for next-generation hypersonic vehicles.

“XS-1 envisions that a reusable first stage would fly to hypersonic speeds at a suborbital altitude. At that point, one or more expendable upper stages would separate and deploy a satellite into Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The reusable first stage would then return to earth, land and be prepared for the next flight. Modular components, durable thermal protection systems and automatic launch, flight and recovery systems should significantly reduce logistical needs, enabling rapid turnaround between flights.”

In addition to creating vehicle designs, the three teams will identify and conduct critical risk reduction of core component technologies and processes and develop a technology maturation plan leading to fabrication and flight-test.

DARPA expects the teams to “explore alternative technical approaches from the perspectives of feasibility, performance, system design and development cost and operational cost. They must also assess potential suitability for near-term transition opportunities to military, civil, and commercial users. These opportunities include both launching small payloads per the program goals as well as others, such as supporting future hypersonic testing and a future space-access aircraft.”

DARPA did not announce the size of the contracts, but previous statements place the awards at about $3 million each. (Boeing has just announced that its award is $4 million.)

Technology developed in the XS-1 program could transition into future fully reusable orbital systems, such as XCOR’s Lynx Mark V (the successor to the Lynx suborbital spacecraft) or Blue Origin’s VTVL system. DARPA has not specified a launch or landing mode, but it is anticipated that XS-1 concepts will include both vertical and horizontal takeoff and landing systems.


Written by Astro1 on July 15th, 2014 , Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Military Space, XCOR Aerospace

A new patent awarded to Seattle-based rocket company Blue Origin is raising eyebrows.

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Written by Astro1 on April 30th, 2013 , Blue Origin

Texas Governor Rick Perry devoted almost a full minute to commercial spaceflight during his State of the State Address.

Companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX, and XCOR Aerospace are helping to make Texas the Space State.


Written by Astro1 on January 31st, 2013 , Blue Origin, Commercial Space (General), SpaceX, XCOR Aerospace Tags:

Blue Origin is planning some major design changes for the next version of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, according to MSNBC’s Alan Boyle.

Boyle reports that the new New Shepard will use a single liquid-hydrogen rocket engine, instead of five kerosene rocket engines. He quotes Blue Origin’s business-development manager Brett Alexander saying, “It’ll look a little different, but it’s essentially the same size.”

That statement is somewhat odd, because liquid hydrogen has a much lower density than liquid kerosene. Hydrogen is lighter and more energetic, so a smaller weight of propellant is required for the same mission but the volume is normally larger. That implies larger tanks. (This is one of the reasons why hydrogen-fueled airliners have never gotten past the drawing board. The fuselage always ends up being huge and filled mostly with fuel rather than passengers.)

In addition, the size of engine pumps scales with the volume of propellant to be pumped, rather than the weight. Hydrogen-fueled engines generally have a lower thrust-to-weight ratio than kerosene engines. That could be offset, though, by lower thrust requirements since the hydrogen weighs less than an equivalent amount of kerosene. There might also be some weight savings from replacing five smaller engines with one larger engine.

Also see Blue Origin Had a Great Day in West Texas.

Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Blue Origin

Blue Origin successfully tested its launch escape system on October 19. Blue Origin founder (and CEO) Jeff Bezos posted a terse message on the Blue Origin website today: “The Blue Origin team worked hard and smart to pull off this first test of our suborbital Crew Capsule escape system. Please enjoy the photos and video. Gradatim Ferociter!”


The crew capsule was lofted to 2,307 feet by an Aerojet solid-rocket motor, then returned to Earth under three parachutes and touched down 1,630 feet from the launch pad. Blue Origin plans to use parachutes for routine landings as well as pad escape. The New Shepherd suborbital vehicle is divided into a crew capsule and a propulsion module, separated by an interstage section. The propulsion module will return to the launch pad for powered landing, but the crew capsule will separate and return to Earth by parachute.

“The use of a pusher configuration marks a significant departure from the traditional towed-tractor escape tower concepts of Mercury and Apollo,” said Blue Origin president and program manager Rob Meyerson. “Providing crew escape without the need to jettison the unused escape system gets us closer to our goal of safe and affordable human spaceflight.” Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), Boeing, and Sierra Nevada planning to use pusher escape systems for their orbital crew capsules and spaceplane. Only NASA’s Orion capsule is sticking with the tried-and-true but inefficient tractor system.

This is one of the last tests to be conducted under Blue Origin’s Space Act Agreement with NASA. Blue Origin did not apply for continued funding under the final phase of the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program. Blue Origin will pursue continued development with its own funding from here on.

“The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight,” said NASA’s Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango. “It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight.”

Also see Design Changes for New Shepard.

Blue Origin Escape Test Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Astro1 on October 22nd, 2012 , Blue Origin Tags:

Among the emerging commercial space transportation companies, Blue Origin is the most secretive and mysterious. A rare glimpse inside the company’s Kent, Washington headquarters came in December 2011 when NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver got a VIP tour from Blue Origin founder (and CEO) Jeff Bezos. The following photo was released by NASA.

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver Tours Blue Origin

Jeff Bezos and Lori Garver stand at the center. The white-haired gentleman is Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson. What appears to be a Blue Origin crew capsule hangs in the background. An enlarged view of the capsule appears below.

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Written by Astro1 on September 9th, 2012 , Blue Origin

Time flies like a rocket. It’s been a little over a year since the last flight of a Blue Origin test vehicle.

On 6 May 2011, Blue Origin successfully flew its New Shepard Propulsion Module 2 (PM2) on a short test hop.


On 24 August 2011, Blue Origin flew the PM2 to Mach 1.2 and 45,000 feet. Unfortunately, the vehicle lost stability and exceeded its planned angle-of-attack, causing the range-safety system to terminate thrust. The PM2 crashed in the desert.

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Written by Astro1 on August 27th, 2012 , Blue Origin

Author Neal Stephenson, a founder of the dystopian school of science fiction known as cyberpunk, has had a change of heart.

Stephenson now worries that the gloomy outlook he inspired may discourage students from studying science and engineering. During a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stephenson said he is “trying to make a literary course correction” toward more optimistic fiction.

We remember the time when science fiction was the literature of optimism, and we’ve been unhappy with the turn it’s taken in recent decades. So, we welcome this news.

Stephenson is a friend of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. He helped Bezos found his rocket company Blue Origin, which must count as atonement (at least in part) for his literary sins. Perhaps his experiences at Blue Origin helped bring about his more optimistic change of heart. Perhaps Stephenson will talk to Bezos about being more open about the progress he’s making at Blue Origin. Working in complete secrecy might make it easier for Blue Origin to achieve some of its business goals, but a little more openness about their goals and accomplishments would help to inspire the next generation.

Written by Astro1 on August 26th, 2012 , Blue Origin, Education