Blue Origin Commercial Space Flight
Blue Origin, LLC is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and suborbital spaceflight services company headquartered in Kent, Washington. Founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos, the company is led by CEO Bob Smith and aims to make access to space cheaper and more reliable through reusable launch vehicles. 1)
Blue Origin is employing an incremental approach from suborbital to orbital flight, with each developmental step building on its prior work. The company motto is Gradatim Ferociter, Latin for "Step by Step, Ferociously".
Blue Origin is developing a variety of technologies, with a focus on rocket-powered vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and orbital space. The company's name refers to the blue planet, Earth, as the point of origin.
Initially focused on suborbital spaceflight, the company has designed, built and flown multiple testbeds of its New Shepard vehicle at its facilities in Culberson County, Texas. Developmental test flights of the New Shepard, named after the first American in space Alan Shepard, began in April 2015, and flight testing is ongoing. Blue Origin has moved the date for first passengers back several times, with one recent planned timeframe being 2019 as of September 2018. In the event, it has not yet begun commercial passenger flights, nor announced a firm date for when they would begin. On nearly every one of the test flights since 2015, the uncrewed vehicle has reached a test altitude of more than 100 kilometers and achieved a top speed of more than Mach 3 (3,675 km/h), reaching space above the Karman line, with both the space capsule and its rocket booster successfully soft landing.
Blue Origin moved into the orbital spaceflight technology business in 2014, initially as a rocket engine supplier for others via a contractual agreement to build a new large rocket engine, the BE-4, for major US launch system operator United Launch Alliance (ULA). By 2015, Blue Origin had announced plans to also manufacture and fly its own orbital launch vehicle, known as the New Glenn, from the Florida Space Coast. BE-4 had been expected to complete engine qualification testing by late 2018, but the test program continued into 2019.
In May 2019, Jeff Bezos unveiled Blue Origin's vision for space and also plans for a moon lander known as "Blue Moon", set to be ready by 2024. On 30 April 2020, Blue Origin's National Team, which includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper, was awarded $579 million to develop an integrated human landing system as part of NASA's Artemis program to return humans to the Moon.
Figure 1: February 2, 2019: Blue Origin's mission: We are focused on developing infrastructure for the creation of human spaceflight capabilities. If we can build a road to space with our reusable launch vehicles, and lower the cost of access - we can enable a future of growth. We are building a road so your children can build the future (video credit: Blue Origin)
Mission and development status
• August 26, 2021: Blue Origin launched a New Shepard suborbital vehicle Aug. 25 on a mission carrying research and educational payloads as the company prepares for its next crewed flight. 2)
- New Shepard lifted off from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas at 10:31 a.m. EDT. The launch was delayed by nearly an hour because of two holds during the countdown, first for an unspecified vehicle issue and then a nearly half-hour hold for what the company called a "payload readiness issue."
Figure 2: The New Shepard crew capsule descends under parachutes shortly after its booster landed during the NS-17 mission Aug. 25 in West Texas (image credit: Blue Origin webcast)
- The crew capsule reached a peak altitude of 105.9 km before landing under parachutes 10 minutes and 15 seconds after liftoff. The vehicle's booster made a powered landing on a nearby pad a few minutes earlier.
- The launch was scheduled Aug. 25 but delayed one day. "We are working to verify a fix on a payload integration issue and taking an extra look before we fly," a company spokesperson said Aug. 23, the day Blue Origin announced the slip.
- The mission carried 18 research payloads inside the capsule, 11 of which are supported by NASA through its Flight Opportunities program. An additional NASA experiment mounted on the vehicle's exterior collected data during the powered landing of the booster to test a sensor and computer system designed for future lunar landers.
- The vehicle also carried paintings by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo on the parachute covers of the capsule as part of an art project by Uplift Aerospace.
- This flight was the first for New Shepard since its inaugural crewed flight July 20, also from Launch Site One. That launch, using a different booster and capsule from this mission, sent company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen to an altitude of more than 100 km before landing 10 minutes after liftoff.
- Company officials said during the launch webcast that the next crewed flight of New Shepard will take place "soon," but didn't offer a more specific schedule. At the July 20 flight, the company said it expected to perform two more crewed flights this year. The company has a backlog of nearly $100 million but has not disclosed the number of customers who have signed up for flights.
• August 24, 2021: While there won't be humans on Blue Origin's 17th New Shepard mission, the fully reusable launch vehicle will carry technologies from NASA, industry, and academia aboard. The agency's Flight Opportunities program supports six payload flight tests, which are slated for lift off no earlier than Aug. 26 from the company's Launch Site One in West Texas. 3)
- For some innovations, this is just one of several tests supported by NASA on different flight vehicles. Iterative flight testing helps quickly ready technologies that could eventually support deep space exploration.
- "This kind of iterative flight testing is exactly what Flight Opportunities is designed for," said Christopher Baker, program executive within the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Leveraging a range of different vehicles to advance technologies quickly is important not only to achieving NASA's mission goals but also to maximizing the impact of these innovations in space and here on Earth."
Precision Landing Technologies for Safe Touchdown
- One of the demonstrations taking flight is a precision landing technology suite developed by NASA researchers under the Safe and Precise Landing Integrated Capabilities Evolution (SPLICE) project. SPLICE is part of STMD's Game Changing Development program.
Figure 3: NASA's SPLICE descent and landing computer (foreground) and navigation Doppler lidar engineering test unit (background) undergo preparations for a suborbital flight test (image credit: Blue Origin)
- The SPLICE navigation system consists of a high-performance computer, lasers, a camera, and other sensors. It is designed to help a lander determine its precise location and velocity as it travels toward the surface of a planetary body. Several SPLICE components flew aboard New Shepard in October 2020 as part of the Tipping Point contract with Blue Origin.
- Supplementing data from the first SPLICE flight test, the upcoming flight will further mature the NASA-developed technologies for future lunar demonstrations. In particular, SPLICE's navigation Doppler lidar developed at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, is slated for future flights on two commercial robotic lunar landers through the agency's Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative.
Propellant Gauging Innovation
- The flight is also an important next step for principal investigator Dr. Kevin Crosby and his team from Carthage College. They'll build on previous parabolic flight campaigns to advance a propellant mass gauging technology.
- Carthage researchers aim to increase the accuracy of measuring propellant levels in space – a mission-critical need, especially during dynamic events such as engine burns and in the latter stages of a mission. The flight will enable the team to evaluate new propellant gauging methods that support the mass measurement of fluid under varying pressures.
- "We've successfully proven that our technology is superior to the current state of the art in both lab tests and on parabolic flights facilitated by Flight Opportunities," said Crosby. "On the upcoming New Shepard flight, we're going to attempt to prove that we can achieve that same performance during a simulation of on-orbit refueling – and we are much more confident we will achieve our objectives because of our parabolic flight experience."
Figure 4: This diagram illustrates Carthage College's propellant mass gauging payload, which includes three propellant tanks, cameras, and an electronics deck (image credits: Carthage College)
Space-Based Trash Recycling Method
- Early-career researchers from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida will test spaceflight trash-to-gas conversion capabilities via the Orbital Syngas/Commodity Augmentation Reactor (OSCAR).
- OSCAR is designed to convert trash and metabolic waste into a blend of useful gases, including carbon dioxide, water vapor, and methane. Astronauts could vent the generated gas into space or use it as building blocks for products such as water, oxygen, or even spacecraft propellants. This recycling technology could reduce the volume and mass of trash on long-duration missions, minimize launch mass from Earth, and promote sustainable human space exploration.
- OSCAR's first suborbital flight test gave the research team data about how microgravity affects the thermal processes that allow waste products to burn in the reactor. The upcoming rocket flight will provide additional microgravity data to help validate OSCAR's conversion technologies.
Figure 5: Principal investigator Dr. Annie Meier and engineers Malay Shah and Jaime Toro assemble the flight hardware for NASA's OSCAR trash-to-gas conversion system on Oct. 10, 2019, at Kennedy's Space Station Processing Facility. (image credit: NASA)
Other Technologies Aboard
- Large-scale liquid acquisition device: SwRI (Southwest Research Institute) investigators will continue testing their device designed to leverage surface tension for more efficient cryogenic transfer operations.
- Exploring electrostatic regolith interactions: This University of Central Florida payload is designed to characterize regolith's electrostatic dynamics and behavior for enhanced safety on lunar missions.
- Suborbital biological imaging: Building on 20 years of microgravity plant research, University of Florida investigators are working to enable autonomous, high-resolution image data collection for a variety of biological payloads during transitions in gravity levels.
About Flight Opportunities
- The Flight Opportunities program is funded by STMD at the agency's Headquarters in Washington and managed at NASA Armstrong. NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley manages the solicitation and evaluation of technologies to be tested and demonstrated on commercial flight vehicles.
• August 19, 2021: NASA will stop work on a Human Landing System (HLS) award to SpaceX through the end of October as a federal court takes up a suit filed by Blue Origin protesting the contract. 4)
- The Court of Federal Claims issued a schedule Aug. 19 for a suit filed by Blue Origin protesting NASA's HLS award to SpaceX. The schedule lays out deadlines for filings to be made by both Blue Origin and the federal government, the defendant in the case. Oral arguments in the suit are scheduled for Oct. 14.
- The schedule also included a "NASA Voluntary Stay of Performance" that expires Nov. 1. That appeared to indicate that NASA would stop work on the HLS contract less than three weeks after the Government Accountability Office denied Blue Origin's protest, allowing work that had been halted since late April to proceed.
- "NASA has voluntarily paused work with SpaceX for the human landing system (HLS) Option A contract effective Aug. 19 through Nov. 1. In exchange for this temporary stay of work, all parties agreed to an expedited litigation schedule that concludes on Nov. 1," the agency said in a statement to SpaceNews. "NASA officials are continuing to work with the Department of Justice to review the details of the case and look forward to a timely resolution of this matter."
- In an interview with SpaceNews Aug. 19 before the release of the case schedule, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he expected some clarity on the schedule of the case, including any requirement for a stop-work order, in the next two weeks.
- He added, though, that the Justice Department, and not NASA, handles the case in federal court. "This is a matter that is out of our hands. It's in the legal system and it's being handled by the Department of Justice."
- The effect of the suit on the overall Artemis program is "further delay," he warned. "The judge could require, in essence, very laborious discovery."
- Blue Origin filed the suit Aug. 13, two weeks after the GAO denied protests both it and Dynetics filed of the HLS "Option A" award made to SpaceX. The companies separately argued that NASA improperly evaluated their proposals as well as claiming that NASA should have revised or canceled the solicitation once it concluded it didn't have the funding to make more than one award. The GAO rejected those arguments.
- "Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System," the company said in an Aug. 16 statement. "We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America."
- The suit adds further doubt that NASA can achieve the goal set by the previous administration of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2024. NASA's Office of Inspector General said in an Aug. 10 report that the spacesuits needed for the Artemis 3 lunar landing mission won't be ready before April 2025, but added the suits are among several factors that "preclude a 2024 landing."
- Asked about the 2024 deadline, Nelson said he didn't know if that was still possible, citing both the HLS lawsuit and the delays with the suit, as well as ongoing efforts to win more funding for the HLS program to support a second lander provider. "I don't know the answer to your question," he said.
• August 19, 2021: Blue Origin will conduct its next New Shepard suborbital mission Aug. 25 with a set of research payloads, but not people, on board on the vehicle's first flight under a revised launch license. 5)
- Blue Origin said Aug. 18 that it's scheduled the NS-17 mission from its West Texas test site, called Launch Site One, for 9:35 a.m. Eastern Aug. 25. The flight will be the eighth for this vehicle, which is different from the one that carried the company's first people to space on a July 20 launch.
- This mission will carry 18 research payloads inside the capsule, 11 of which are supported by NASA through its Flight Opportunities program. An additional NASA experiment will collect data during the powered landing of the booster to test a sensor and computer system designed for future lunar landers. The spacecraft will also carry paintings by Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo on the parachute covers of the capsule as part of an art project by Uplift Aerospace.
- The flight will be the first for New Shepard since that July 20 crewed flight. At the time, company officials said they planned to do two more crewed New Shepard launches this year, as well as a payload-only flight.
- It will also be the first since the latest update to the company's launch license, issued by the Federal Aviation Administration Aug. 13. The license is primarily a renewal of previous ones issued by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation dating back to 2017, with the new one valid for two years.
- A major change in the new license is in its "financial responsibility" requirements. Licensees must demonstrate that they are able to cover losses in the event of an accident up to a maximum probable loss, or MPL, determined by the FAA in the licensing process. In the case of New Shepard, that MPL figure is $150 million.
- Launch companies usually meet this requirement though liability insurance. However, a new section of the Blue Origin license sets up an alternative approach where an unnamed "parent guarantor" places the funding in an account exclusively intended to cover any losses. The agreement between Blue Origin and that parent guarantor "shall guarantee all necessary and required resources for compliance with FAA's financial responsibility requirements, specifically in the amount of the MPL," the license states.
- The license includes other provisions requiring that the company demonstrate that the funding is in place before each launch and that, before the first launch, provide a legal opinion from an independent law firm that the guarantee agreement is binding and enforceable.
- Blue Origin did not answer questions about why it took this alternative approach in its new license. One industry source, speaking on background, said it would allow Blue Origin to avoid paying premiums for the liability insurance that would otherwise be needed to meet the requirement. Those premiums would have grown as the FAA increased the MPL value on the license from $75 million to $150 million in July, when the agency modified the license to allow Blue Origin to carry people on the vehicle.
- Most companies opt not to self-insure because of the requirement to set aside a significant amount of money to cover losses. Blue Origin, though, is owned by Jeff Bezos, one of the world's wealthiest people with a net worth of nearly $200 billion.
• August 16, 2021: Blue Origin has filed suit against NASA in federal court, arguing that the agency failed to properly evaluate its proposal for the agency's Human Landing System program, a procurement won by SpaceX. 6)
- Blue Origin filed suit Aug. 13 in the Court of Federal Claims, which has jurisdiction over bid protests after reviews by the Government Accountability Office. The company sought a protective order, sealing documents it filed in the case. The court granted that protective order Aug. 16.
- The company said it requested the protective order "to protect confidential, proprietary, and source selection information contained in the Complaint, and other filings and hearing transcripts in this bid protest."
- Only in the motion to seal filings in the case did Blue Origin explicitly state that the case was about the HLS "Option A" award that NASA made to SpaceX in April. "More specifically, this bid protest challenges NASA's unlawful and improper evaluation of proposals submitted under the HLS Option A BAA," or broad agency announcement, the company said in the motion.
- "Blue Origin filed suit in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System (HLS)," the company said a statement to SpaceNews. "We firmly believe that the issues identified in this procurement and its outcomes must be addressed to restore fairness, create competition, and ensure a safe return to the Moon for America."
- Blue Origin and Dynetics filed separate protests with the GAO in April, arguing NASA improperly evaluated their proposals compared to SpaceX, and that NASA erred in making only a single award rather than revising the competition or canceling it entirely. The GAO rejected those arguments, denying the protests July 30.
- The GAO went into more detail about its denial of the protests in an Aug. 10 public version of its decision document. It found no evidence that NASA improperly evaluated the proposals, concluding that "the record adequately supports NASA's evaluation of the protesters' proposals and was consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the terms" of the solicitation.
- The GAO also concluded that NASA was within its rights to make only a single award, as the agency made clear in the Option A solicitation that it could make multiple awards, a single award or none at all.
- Blue Origin didn't back down after the release of the 76-page GAO decision. "The GAO report confirms NASA's desire for multiple awards and confirms that there were significant issues with how NASA conducted this procurement process," the company said in an Aug. 11 statement. "We stand by our assessment that SpaceX received preferential treatment by conducting exclusive negotiations with them."
- In the same statement, Blue Origin again called on NASA to make a second HLS award, despite the lack of funding to support such a deal. "We continue to urge NASA to restore competition and immediately award a second provider," the company said. "Two providers ensure greater safety and mission success, promote competition, and control costs."
- During the GAO protest, NASA halted work on the HLS award to SpaceX, but transferred $300 million to the company on July 30, the day the GAO denied the protests. It was not immediately clear if the Blue Origin suit in the Court of Federal Claims will force another stop-work order on the contract.
• August 16, 2021: The Government Accountability Office (GAO) offered more details about its decision to reject protests filed by two companies of NASA's Human Landing System (HLS) award to SpaceX. 7)
- The GAO released Aug. 10 a 76-page decision denying protests filed in April by Blue Origin and Dynetics of NASA's decision to make a single HLS award, valued at $2.9 billion, to SpaceX. The GAO announced its decision July 30 but withheld the formal decision memo until a version suitable for public release, with redactions, was available.
- The GAO rejected claims by the protesting companies that NASA erred by making a single award when it discussed its desire to make multiple awards. The "plain terms" of the solicitation, the GAO concluded, "unequivocally put the protesters on notice that NASA could make multiple awards, a single award, or no award at all."
- The GAO decision provides new details about the financial constraints NASA faced when assessing the HLS proposals. NASA received $850 million from Congress in fiscal year 2021 for the HLS program and identified an additional $96 million from other programs that could go to HLS. However, $389 million of that funding was already committed to the "base period" awards NASA made to Blue Origin, Dynetics and SpaceX in 2020, and $202 million reserved for internal and other costs for the program. That left $355 million available for the new HLS awards.
- All three companies requested initial milestone payments more than that amount, although the exact numbers are redacted in the public GAO document. NASA requested SpaceX, the lowest bidder, revise its payment structure to address that. The document does not disclose the new value of that initial milestone payment, although government contracting records show NASA paid SpaceX $300 million on July 30, the day the GAO rejected the protests.
- Blue Origin and Dynetics, the GAO concluded, "did not submit proposals priced in a manner that NASA could make multiple awards with the available funding for the HLS program." While the questions about the importance of multiple competitors, the GAO added in its decision, "may merit further public debate, they do not establish that NASA has violated any applicable procurement law or regulation."
- The GAO also rejected claims by Blue Origin and Dynetics that their proposals were unfairly evaluated in comparison with SpaceX's proposal. These range from Blue Origin's criticism of how its lander's communications system was assessed to the mass of Dynetics's lander that "far exceeds" its allocation.
- The GAO dismissed those claims, concluding that "the record adequately supports NASA's evaluation of the protesters' proposals and was consistent with applicable procurement law, regulation, and the terms" of the solicitation.
- However, the GAO did agree with one claim that the protestors made about how NASA evaluated SpaceX's proposal. SpaceX's concept of operations for its Starship lunar lander requires 16 launches: one of the lander itself, 14 "tanker" Starships to fuel it and another whose purpose is redacted. The protestors argued that NASA erred in not requiring a flight readiness review (FRR) for each launch.
- The GAO agreed that, under the terms of the solicitation, an FRR is needed before each launch, rather than one for the entire series of launches. NASA requested SpaceX amend its proposal to include two additional FRRs, but the GAO said that still fell short of the requirements in the solicitation.
- However, the GAO also concluded that this oversight did not have a material impact on the competition, stating in the document that "the record reflects that NASA's evaluation was largely reasonable, and the relative competitive standing of the offerors under the non-price factors would not materially change."
- Dynetics did not comment on the GAO report, and in a July 30 statement said that "while disappointed, we respect the GAO's determination." Blue Origin, though, offered no concessions even after the release of the report.
- "The GAO report confirms NASA's desire for multiple awards and confirms that there were significant issues with how NASA conducted this procurement process," the company said in an Aug. 11 statement. "We stand by our assessment that SpaceX received preferential treatment by conducting exclusive negotiations with them."
- The company said it urged NASA to select a second provider, something agency officials said they support but lack the funding to do so currently. "Two providers ensure greater safety and mission success, promote competition, and control costs."
- SpaceX did not comment on the report beyond tweets from company founder and chief executive Elon Musk addressing one aspect of the report regarding the need for 16 launches to support a single Starship lunar lander mission. "16 flights is extremely unlikely," he said, estimating a "max of 8" flights to fill the tanks given the projected payload capacity of Starship, and possibly as few as four.
• August 5, 2021: United Launch Alliance underestimated the challenges Blue Origin would face in the development, testing and manufacturing of the BE-4 rocket engine, ULA's CEO Tory Bruno said Aug. 5. The engine program is years behind schedule, he said, but the BE-4 so far is performing well in tests and fully assembled flight engines should be delivered within months. 8)
- Bruno: 'It's taking us longer to move through this test program. And the same is true on the production part of this.'
- "I expect that I will receive flight engines before the end of the year," Bruno said in an interview with SpaceNews.
- Two BE-4 engines will power the first stage of ULA's new rocket, Vulcan Centaur. ULA signed an agreement with Blue Origin in 2014 to jointly fund the development of the BE-4 and in 2015 announced it would build Vulcan as its next-generation rocket to replace the Atlas 5 and the Delta 4.
Figure 6: A pathfinder first stage of United Launch Alliance's Vulcan Centaur at Cape Canaveral, Florida (image credit: ULA)
- Blue Origin in 2015 proclaimed that engines would be ready by 2017. Bruno said everything in the BE-4 program has taken far longer than planned.
- "I'm not going to kid you: the engines are late," Bruno said.
- "Why are they late? They're late because it's taking them longer to move through the test program, and it's taking them longer to build the production engines than they planned."
- "And why is that happening? It's happening because the testing is more complicated than they anticipated. And because they allowed themselves, we allowed ourselves as a program, to have fewer test assets to work with than we originally planned," he added.
- The combination of all these issues is "causing us to take longer to move through this test program. And the same is true on the production part of this," said Bruno.
- The pre-qualification program will be followed by more rigorous qualification testing, both of which are happening in parallel to the fabrication of the flight engines. There is some risk involved in this approach but "no major issues" have emerged so far, he said.
- "We have done so much testing already that we are comfortable starting the manufacturing and even finishing the manufacturing of the flight engines. What we won't do is fly those engines before all the testing is done."
- Several BE-4 engines are currently undergoing pre-qualification tests at Blue Origin's facilities in Van Horn, Texas. The first two flight engines are being assembled in Kent, Washington.
- The two flight engines may or may not be finished before the qualification program is finished, Bruno said. "We'll take them as soon as they're available, and we'll start integrating them into a flight booster" at ULA's rocket factory in Decatur, Alabama.
- During the pre-qualification testing, engineers are pushing the engine "above and beyond requirements," he said. "That means running for longer durations, or at higher power levels. It's just a good thing to do when you have the opportunity."
- As things stand today, said Bruno, "the engine continues to perform well."
- "The thrust levels are where we want them, the efficiency of the engine [the ISP or specific impulse] is higher than we expected. The engine has been run at its minimum power level, it's been run above its maximum power level," he added. "We have many thousands of seconds across several engines so we're feeling very good about the design of our engine."
- During a new engine development it's expected that tweaks might be needed but "hopefully what you don't find are big problems with the engine that require any kind of significant redesign," Bruno said. "We haven't had any of those big things since we've been in our pre qualification testing. We're deciding if we want to make minor adjustments before we go into formal qualification."
- An unspecified number of BE-4 engines are going through pre-qualification and several more will be used for the formal qualification, Bruno said. The first pair of flight engines will not see qualification testing but will be hot fired before they are delivered to the rocket factory.
- Testing and manufacturing "literally the same article" is more complicated than Blue Origin had planned or anticipated, said Bruno. "It's just taking them longer to get through it, to actually build those engines for us as well as finish up the testing."
- The flight engines will be mated with a Vulcan booster that is currently at ULA's facility in Cape Canaveral, Florida. They'll get fired one more time on the pad before the first launch, Bruno said. "This flight readiness firing is just a one-time event. It's like a qualification test for the whole booster" before it goes into the vertical integration facility where the upper stage and payload are stacked.
What's at stake for ULA
- The success of Vulcan is critical to the future of ULA. The company won one of two contracts (SpaceX won the other) the U.S. Space Force awarded in August 2020 for the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Services Procurement.
- The Space Force invested nearly $1 billion in the development of Vulcan and also needs it to succeed because the law bans DoD from procuring launches on Atlas 5 beyond 2022. Congress passed that law in 2016 due to geopolitical tensions with Russia. The Atlas 5 booster uses the Russian RD-180 engine.
- ULA's first mission under the Phase 2 contract was expected to be flown by Vulcan in late 2022 but ULA asked to switch the mission to Atlas 5 as Vulcan would not be ready on time. The switch was allowed under the terms of the contract but stirred speculation about ULA's and Blue Origin's ability to bring Vulcan and BE-4 to fruition.
- Vulcan needs to complete two non-NSSL orbital missions before it can be certified for national security launch. Besides the engine delays, another problem for ULA is that its first Vulcan customers — Astrobotic and Sierra Nevada Corp. — are late building their payloads. Bruno said he is confident these payloads will be ready next year but if they're not, ULA will seek other customers to fly on Vulcan so it can be certified for its first NSSL mission in 2023.
- Further concerns were raised by the Government Accountability Office in a June report that stated "A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA's Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required."
- Bruno said he was "dumbfounded" by GAO's assessment that the engine igniter was a problem.
- The igniter is not a technical challenge but a design issue, he said. Blue Origin is making the BE-4 for ULA and also to power its own heavy rocket New Glenn. About a year and a half ago, ULA and Blue Origin decided that the first BE-4s would be made with an igniter suitable for Vulcan but not for New Glenn, which has a reusable first stage and would need a different igniter for propulsive flyback.
- "It has always been our intention to have at first a configuration of the engine for Vulcan and a slightly different configuration of the engine for New Glenn," Bruno said. "The igniter was one of those choices made quite some time ago. And it's certainly not a technical issue today."
‘We are in this together'
- Bruno said the chatter about ULA considering ending its partnership with Blue Origin is just that — chatter.
- "We have a solid relationship with our engine provider," he said. "We know that we are in this together," Bruno added. "There is no mission for our new rocket without engines, and there is no practical engine fabrication capability without us as a customer."
- He said Blue Origin has "very good technical people, many highly experienced rocket engine designers who know their work, know their business."
- "When we got into this partnership we anticipated that there would be a challenge in moving through a large complicated development program and then standing up a production line for flight hardware," Bruno said. "It has been a little bit more challenging than certainly they anticipated, but it's also been harder for them than we anticipated and that's why it's taking a bit more time."
- Bruno pushed back on suggestions that he is being protective of Blue Origin and glossing over the company's lackluster performance on the engine program.
- That's not the case, he said. "You can't cover things up, and if you're trying to hide things they eventually come to light anyway and then you lose credibility, so I always prefer to be upfront and transparent. I'm not protecting them. They are professionals, and they can stand up for themselves."
• July 26, 2020: Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos says his company will cover more than $2 billion in costs if NASA will award it a second Human Landing System (HLS) contract. 9)
- In a July 26 letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, Bezos said the company would waive up to $2 billion in payments in the first years of a new award, as well as pay for a demonstration mission, should NASA give the company an HLS award like the one SpaceX received in April to develop and demonstrate a crewed lunar lander.
- "We stand ready to help NASA moderate its technical risks and solve its budgetary constraints and put the Artemis Program back on a more competitive, credible, and sustainable path," Bezos wrote in the letter.
- In his proposal, Bezos said that Blue Origin will waive any payments both in the current fiscal year as well as the next two, up to $2 billion. "This offer is not a deferral, but is an outright and permanent waiver of those payments," he wrote. "This offer provides time for government appropriation actions to catch up."
Figure 7: The Blue Origin national team integrated lander vehicle (image credit: Blue Origin)
- Blue Origin would also carry out at its own expense "a pathfinder mission to low-Earth orbit of the lunar descent element to further retire development and schedule risks." That would be in addition to an uncrewed lunar landing demonstration that the company says was part of its "baseline plan" for developing the lunar lander system.
- Bezos added that Blue Origin would accept a firm-fixed-price contract for the work, something that NASA had already required for HLS.
- The letter is the latest bid to get NASA to award a second HLS contract, something the agency had originally planned. However, in April it announced it was making a single HLS award to SpaceX because of budget constraints. SpaceX offered the lowest bid at $2.9 billion, compared to $5.99 billion by the Blue Origin-led "National Team" and $8.5–9 billion by Dynetics, the third bidder.
- Blue Origin officials complained that, unlike SpaceX, they were not given a change to revise their price during the HLS competition, an argument Bezos reiterated in his letter. "That was a mistake, it was unusual, and it was a missed opportunity," he said. "NASA veered from its original dual-source acquisition strategy due to perceived near-term budgetary issues, and this offer removes that obstacle."
- NASA officials said in April they did not negotiate because of the limited funding it had available. "I do not have enough funding available to even attempt to negotiate a price from Blue Origin that could potentially enable a contract award," Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, wrote in the source selection statement outlining her rationale for selecting only SpaceX.
- Both Blue Origin and Dynetics filed protests with the Government Accountability Office regarding the HLS awards. The GAO has an Aug. 4 deadline to rule on the protests.
- Agency officials have declined to discuss details about its HLS plans, citing a "blackout" imposed by the protest. "The contract to SpaceX is held in abeyance right now as it is contested," Nelson said in a July 21 webinar by The Washington Post. "We're expecting an announcement in the next few weeks and, on the basis of that, we will then proceed."
- Nelson has lobbied Congress for additional funding to be able to support a second HLS provider regardless of the outcome of the GAO protests. "We need some more money to enhance and procure that competition so that there are other players that get involved," he said in the webinar.
- He previously told congressional appropriators that NASA would need $5.4 billion in additional funding to support a second HLS provider, suggesting that money could be included in a separate jobs and infrastructure funding package. However, there's been no sign that such funding would be included, and a House version of a fiscal year 2022 spending bill provided $1.345 billion for HLS, just $150 million above the agency's request.
• July 20, 2021: Jeff Bezos and the others who were on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle hailed the experience as better than expected, but Bezos is facing a backlash for spending part of his extreme wealth on space. 10)
- In a ceremony a couple hours after their brief suborbital spaceflight July 20, Blue Origin awarded their version of astronaut wings to Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. The four then described the experience of the 10-minute flight to an altitude of 107 kilometers.
- "My expectations were high, and they were dramatically exceeded," Jeff Bezos said. That included both the several minutes of microgravity and the view of the Earth from suborbital altitudes, which he called "very profound."
- "It was incredibly exhilarating," Mark Bezos said, emphasizing the acceleration felt during launch and reentry, which during reentry peaked at five times the force of gravity.
- "It felt way cooler than it looked," Daemen, who at 18 years old is now the youngest person to go to space, said after Blue Origin showed a video of the four of them moving around the cabin while in microgravity.
- The 82-year-old Funk, now the oldest person to go to space, was the only one to offer even slightly critical comments about the experience. "I loved every minute of it. I just wish it was longer," she said. "There was not quite enough room for all four of us." The New Shepard cabin is designed to carry up to six people. - However, she added, "It was great. I loved it. I can hardly wait to go again."
Figure 8: The NS-16 crew poses in front of the booster that launched their mission. From left: Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Wally Funk and Mark Bezos (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
Nearly $100 million in sales
- At the ceremony, Jeff Bezos reiterated past statements by Blue Origin officials that the company is planning two more crewed flights of New Shepard the rest of this year. "What we do in the following year I'm not sure yet. We'll figure that out, and what the cadence will eventually be," he said.
- The company has quietly been selling tickets for future flights through private sales, starting with participants in the June auction. "We're approaching $100 million in private sales already, and the demand is very, very high," he said.
- He emphasized his desire to reach a very high flight rate, which will require building new vehicles with longer lifetimes. The vehicle flown on the July 20 flight is designed to make 25 flights; this was its third.
- "We'd like to make that closer to 100 than to 25" flights, he said. "Once it's close to 100, we'll push it past 100."
Figure 9: Jeff Bezos (third from left) speaks at a post-flight ceremony with the other people who flew on the NS-16 mission (from left): Oliver Daemen, Mark Bezos and Wally Funk (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
Praise and criticism
- The successful flight generated widespread public interest as well as praise from many in space industry, including suborbital spaceflight rival Virgin Galactic. "It continues to be a great time for commercial space travel!" that company tweeted after the flight. "Congrats to @blueorigin on today's successful flight, together we'll open space for good!"
- It also got the attention of the White House. "The United States is the first country to have private companies taking private passengers to space. This is a moment of American exceptionalism. That's how we see it," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a July 20 briefing. "It will be the ingenuity of all of our commercial partners to help us continue advancing to the next stage of our nation's space exploration."
- Others, though, saw nothing about the suborbital flight to praise. Shortly after New Shepard landed, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, announced his intent to introduce legislation to tax commercial human spaceflight launches that lack a scientific purpose.
- "Space exploration isn't a tax-free holiday for the wealthy. Just as normal Americans pay taxes when they buy airline tickets, billionaires who fly into space to produce nothing of scientific value should do the same, and then some," he said in a statement.
- His proposed Securing Protections Against Carbon Emissions (SPACE) Tax Act would levy a per-passenger tax on space tourism at two different rates: one for suborbital flights and a higher rate for orbital flights.
- Blumenauer didn't disclose additional details about the SPACE Tax Act, and a spokesperson said he would introduce the bill in the "coming weeks" after consultations with experts.
- Another member of Congress suggested that Blue Origin was distracted by its New Shepard flight from other work, notably the development of the BE-4 engine that will power both its own New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance's Vulcan. "Congratulations to @blueorigin on your successful space flight. The future is bright for American space innovation," tweeted Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) "Now please get back to work on the engines for @ulalaunch's Vulcan rocket."
- At the ceremony, Jeff Bezos did not directly address those criticisms or more general ones about Bezos's wealth and his decision to spend it on space rather than more terrestrial pursuits. He emphasized, though, the value of seeing the Earth from space to better appreciate the environment, calling the Earth the "only good planet in the solar system."
- "This is the only good one," he said of the Earth, "and we have to take care of it. If you go to space you'll see how fragile it is and want to take care of it even more."
- Bezos diverged from discussing Blue Origin to announce a new project, the Courage and Civility Award. He gave the first two such awards to activist and political commentator Van Jones and to chef and humanitarian José Andrés. Each received $100 million from Bezos.
- Bezos also benefited from the presence of Funk, who often stole the show with her enthusiasm about going to space six decades after being one of the "Mercury 13" women who passed astronaut medical examinations but never had the opportunity to become NASA astronauts. "Wally Funk is now on my list of people that I would most like to meet in the country," Psaki said at the White House briefing. "She's America's new sweetheart."
• July 20, 2021: Blue Origin performed its first crewed New Shepard launch July 20, sending company founder Jeff Bezos and three other people on a suborbital flight. 11)
New Shepard lifted off from Blue Origin's Launch Site One in West Texas at 9:12 a.m. EDT on the NS-16 mission. The crew capsule, called RSS (Reusable Space Ship) First Step, separated from its booster and reached a peak altitude of 107 kilometers before descending under parachutes to a landing 10 minutes and 10 seconds after liftoff. The booster performed a powered landing nearly seven and a half minutes after liftoff.
Figure 10: Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle lifts off on its first crewed flight July 20 from West Texas (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
- On board New Shepard was Jeff Bezos, the founder and recently retired chief executive of Amazon.com, who established Blue Origin more than two decades ago. He has invested several billion dollars into the company, creating New Shepard as well as its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle under development, the BE-4 engine and lunar lander concepts.
- "Best day ever!" he exclaimed minutes after landing.
- Also on board was Mark Bezos, the younger brother of Jeff Bezos, who was invited by his brother to be on the flight. On July 1, Blue Origin announced that Wally Funk, who completed astronaut medical exams six decades ago as one of the "Mercury 13" women, would join the flight. The fourth and final person, Dutch teenager Oliver Daemen, formally joined the crew July 15. Daemen took the place of the winner of a June 12 auction, who bid $28 million for the seat but who later had "scheduling conflicts" that kept that person from flying.
- At 82, Funk became the oldest person to fly to space, breaking the record set by John Glenn when he flew to space for the second time on the space shuttle in 1998 at the age of 77. Daeman, 18 years old, became the youngest, breaking the record set by Soviet cosmonaut Gherman Titov in 1961 when he flew about a month before turning 26.
- The flight was the first time that New Shepard, which started its test flight program in 2015, carried people. The vehicle is designed to fly autonomously, and all previous flights carried only experiments or other cargo.
- That series of test flights, capped off by two flights in January and April, convinced Blue Origin it was ready to fly people. "We followed a methodical, step-by-step approach to get to this point in time. We're ready," Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said at a pre-launch media briefing July 18.
- Smith said the company was confident enough in the design to allow four people on the first flight, including Daemen, who is the company's first commercial customer, rather than fly company personnel. That was based on the two previous flights, which demonstrated that the vehicle is a stable configuration.
- "By doing so, we've exercised not only the design but also the manufacturing and all of the operations," he said. "When we had clean flights from both of those, we said, ‘We're ready to go. We can go fly astronauts and do it safely.'"
- While the company is confident to go directly into commercial operations, Smith said the crew of this flight were asked to perform "a few evaluations of capabilities of what we're seeing in flight."
- "There's really no difference in how we operate the vehicle and the systems whether they're employees or commercial customers," said Steve Lanius, NS-16 flight director, at the briefing. "They're still human beings."
Figure 11: The New Shepard capsule descends under parachutes during its July 20 crewed flight (image credit: SpaceNews/Jeff Foust)
- Jeff Bezos, in a CBS television interview July 19, expressed no reservations about flying on New Shepard. "People keep asking me if I am nervous. I am not really nervous. I am excited. I am curious," he said. "We've been training, this vehicle is ready, this crew is ready, this team is amazing. We just feel really good about it."
- Blue Origin plans to conduct two more crewed New Shepard flights this year, with the first in late September or early October. Smith said the company has seen "high interest" from potential customers, but has not disclosed how many people have signed up or at what prices. Another uncrewed flight, carrying research payloads, is also scheduled for later this year.
• July 18, 2021: Blue Origin is on track to perform the first crewed launch of its New Shepard vehicle July 20, carrying company founder Jeff Bezos and three others on a suborbital spaceflight. 12)
- At a July 18 news conference, company officials said they had successfully completed a flight readiness review for the NS-16 mission that will carry Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. Liftoff of New Shepard from the company's Launch Site One north of Van Horn, Texas, is scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern July 20.
- "We are not currently working any open issues and New Shepard is ready to fly," Steve Lanius, NS-16 flight director at Blue Origin, said at the briefing. "We expect to be ready to launch on schedule."
- Weather is also looking favorable for the launch, he said. There is a slight chance of thunderstorms in the early morning hours July 20, but any storms are forecast to clear before launch.
- While engineers complete final checks of New Shepard's crew capsule and propulsion module, the four people who will fly on the spacecraft are going through 14 hours of training spread across two days. This features a mix of classroom instruction, demonstrations and practice in a training capsule, Lanius said, including nominal, off-nominal and emergency procedures.
- Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said the company took a "methodical, step-by-step approach" in the development and testing of New Shepard over a series of 15 uncrewed test flights dating back to 2015. However, he defended the company's decision to move into crewed flight by flying four people on the first launch, including a paying customer, rather than flying a smaller number of company employees first.
- He said the previous two flights, in January and April, demonstrated that the vehicle was in a "stable configuration" and ready to go into full-scaled human spaceflight. "When we had clean flights from both of those, we said we were ready to go. We can go fly astronauts and do that safely," he said. "We didn't see any value, quite honestly, from doing things stepwise in that approach."
- The four people on board will be asked to perform "a few evaluations of capabilities" of the vehicle during the flight, Smith said. The vehicle itself, though, will fly autonomously.
- If the NS-16 flight goes as expected, Blue Origin expects to perform two more New Shepard flights this year, with the first of them in late September or early October. The company did not discuss flight schedules beyond this year.
- Blue Origin announced Daemen as the fourth person on the NS-16 flight July 15. The 18-year-old Dutch teenager is taking the place unidentified winner of a June 12 auction for the seat after that individual had what the company called a "scheduling conflict" that kept that person from flying.
- Blue Origin added Daemen to the flight because he had already signed up to fly on the company's second crewed New Shepard mission. He is one of an unspecified number of people who have purchased tickets since the auction for later flights.
- "Since the auction that we held on June 12, I have had the pleasure of chatting with many of our future customers that have already signed up for the subsequent flights," said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales at Blue Origin, at the briefing. "We have already built a robust pipeline of customers that are interested."
- The company didn't disclose how many people have purchased tickets or at what price, but Smith suggested that those customers who participated in the auction were paying a premium. "Willingness to pay continues to be quite high. Our early flights are going for a very good price," he said. "I think we're seeing very strong interest."
• July 15, 2021: An 18-year-old Dutch man will fly on Blue Origin's first crewed New Shepard suborbital flight, taking the place of the unidentified winner of an auction last month for the seat. 13)
- Blue Origin announced July 15 that Oliver Daemen will be the fourth and final member of the crew of the New Shepard flight launching July 20 from the company's West Texas spaceport. Daemen will join Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, and Wally Funk on the 10-minute suborbital flight.
- Oliver Daemen is the son of Joes Daemen, the chief executive and founder and Somerset Capital Partners. He was one of the bidders in the June 12 auction for the seat on the flight but did not make the high bid.
- Blue Origin said the person who made the winning $28 million bid, who remains anonymous, "has chosen to fly on a future New Shepard mission due to scheduling conflicts." The company did not elaborate on those scheduling conflicts, but Blue Origin stated the flight would take place on July 20 when it announced its plans, and started the auction process, May 5.
Figure 12: Oliver Daemen, 18, will be the fourth person on Blue Origin's New Shepard flight, becoming the youngest person in space in the process (image credit: Blue Origin)
- A Blue Origin spokesperson confirmed that Daemen "had secured a seat on the second flight" of New Shepard and that the company "moved him up when this seat on the first flight became available."
- Blue Origin had not previously disclosed it had sold any tickets beyond the seat auctioned in June. At the time of the auction, though, a company executive said Blue Origin would reach out to other auction participants about buying seats on future flights.
- "We will also find additional astronauts who will fly on our other upcoming early missions," Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, said at the June 12 auction. "Following the auction, we are going to contact the most competitive bidders from today to offer them access to those early flights."
- A company spokesperson declined to say how many additional seats it had sold, or what price Daemen or any other customers paid.
- Blue Origin described Daemen as a man with an interest in space that dates back to the age of four — or approximately 2007, several years after Bezos founded Blue Origin. Daemen is taking a gap year before starting studies at the University of Utrecht.
- "I am super excited to go to space," he said in a video posted by the Dutch publication Bright. "I've been dreaming about this all my life and I will become the youngest astronaut because I'm 18 years old."
- At 18, Daemen will break the record for youngest person in space. Gherman Titov was 25 years and nearly 11 months old when he became the second man in space on the Vostok 2 orbital mission in August 1961.
- Funk, meanwhile, will set the record for the oldest person in space on the same flight. At 82 years old, she will break the record set by John Glenn, who was 77 when we went to space for a second time on the STS-95 shuttle mission in 1998.
• July 15, 2021: With less than a week before its first crewed suborbital spaceflight, Blue Origin is distributing some of the proceeds from an auction for one of the seats on that flight to a group of space-related nonprofit organizations. 14)
- Blue Origin announced July 14 it is awarding $1 million each to 19 organizations through its foundation, Club for the Future. The organizations include a wide range of educational and advocacy groups, from the Challenger Center and Space Camp to The Planetary Society and the International Astronautical Federation.
- "This donation is enabling Club for the Future to rapidly expand its reach by partnering with 19 organizations to develop and inspire the next generation of space professionals," Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in a statement.
- For some of the organizations, the $1 million award far exceeds their annual budgets. The Mars Society, for example, reported annual revenue of less than $400,000 in its most recent publicly available filing with the Internal Revenue Service, while the Space Frontier Foundation reported an annual revenue of less than $430,000.
- The organizations welcomed the awards but offered few specifics about how they would spend the money beyond support for some kind of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education projects. "This incredibly generous grant from Blue Origin will allow us to expand our educational and career development programs to countless young people," Anita Gale, chief executive of the National Space Society, said in a statement.
- Space Center Houston, which operates a visitor complex adjacent to NASA's Johnson Space Center, said it will use the grant to expand programs to reach disadvantaged students in the Houston area. "With Blue Origin's support, we can empower students with hands-on STEM learning opportunities through the wonders of space exploration," William Harris, president and chief executive of Space Center Houston, said in a statement.
- The funding comes from the auction Blue Origin completed June 12 for a seat on the first crew New Shepard suborbital flight, which sold for $28 million. The remaining proceeds from the auction will be used by Club for the Future for its own space education programs.
- The company has not disclosed the winning bidder, even though the flight is scheduled to take place in less than a week. Blue Origin confirmed July 12 that launch will take place July 20 from its West Texas test site, with liftoff scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern. The Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has updated its license for New Shepard launches to allow the company to carry spaceflight participants on board.
- Joining the auction winner on that flight will be Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, and Wally Funk, one of the "Mercury 13" women who passed astronaut medical exams six decades ago but never received an opportunity to become NASA astronauts.
- Bezos overshadowed Blue Origin's awards with a much larger one of his own July 14. He is giving $200 million to the National Air and Space Museum that will go towards renovations of the museum and a new educational center. The Smithsonian Institution called the donation the largest single gift it received since its founding by James Smithson in 1846.
• June 12, 2021: A seat on the first crewed flight of Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle sold for $28 million at an auction June 12. 15)
- The live auction wrapped up a bidding process that the company announced May 5 to sell the seat on the flight, scheduled for July 20 from the company's West Texas test site. The process started with sealed bids, followed by an online bidding process that closed June 10. Qualified bidders then participated in the final live auction, where the high bid reached $28 million in about 10 minutes. The proceeds go to Club for the Future, an educational nonprofit organization affiliated with Blue Origin.
- The identity of the winning bidder was not immediately disclosed. The winner can fly on the New Shepard flight or designate another individual to go on the flight. Blue Origin's Ariane Cornell said that the winner's identity will be disclosed within a couple weeks, along with the fourth and final member of the crew.
- Interest in the auction grew after Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos announced June 7 that he will be on the flight along with his brother Mark. The high bid for the flight went from $2.8 million at the time Bezos announced his plans to $4.8 million when the online process closed June 10.
- The July 20 flight will be the first to carry people on New Shepard, which has flown 15 uncrewed test flights over several years. The most recent flight, April 14, was a dress rehearsal for crewed flights, with several Blue Origin employees playing the role of astronauts, testing getting into and out of the capsule during pre- and post-flight activities.
- Blue Origin's major competitor in suborbital spaceflight, Virgin Galactic, flew its SpaceShipTwo vehicle, VSS Unity, on its first trip to the edge of space in more than two years May 22. The vehicle, with two pilots on board, flew to an altitude of 89.2 kilometers before landing back at Spaceport America in New Mexico.
- Virgin Galactic previously discussed performing three more SpaceShipTwo test flights through the fall before going into a maintenance period, then starting full-scale commercial service in early 2022. The next flight was to carry four Virgin Galactic employees, along with two pilots, to test out the cabin interior.
- However, Parabolic Arc reported June 7 that the company is reportedly considering having its founder, Richard Branson, go on the next flight. He was scheduled to go on the second of the three flights, with the third being a commercial research and astronaut training flight for the Italian Air Force. Under that revised plan, Branson's flight would take place around July 4, more than two weeks before Bezos goes to space on Blue Origin's New Shepard.
- In a statement June 8, Virgin Galactic said it had not yet determined the date of its next SpaceShipTwo flight, but neither confirmed nor denied the report that Branson would be on that flight.
• June 7, 2021: Jeff Bezos, the world's richest man and founder of Blue Origin, announced June 7 that he will go on the first crewed flight of the company's New Shepard suborbital vehicle next month. 16) 17)
- In an Instagram post, Bezos said that he, and his brother Mark, will go on the suborbital flight, scheduled for July 20 from Blue Origin's West Texas test site.
- "I want to go on this flight because it's a thing I wanted to do all my life. It's an adventure. It's a big deal for me," Bezos says in the brief video.
- Blue Origin announced May 5 that, after years of development and more than a dozen uncrewed test flights, the company was finally ready to fly people on New Shepard. At the time, the company did not disclose who would fly on the vehicle, other than it would make one seat available to the winner of an auction.
- That online auction is ongoing, with a current high bid of $2.8 million. The auction is set to conclude June 12 with a live auction among qualified bidders.
Figure 13: Jeff Bezos announced June 7 he will fly on Blue Origin's first crewed New Shepard flight in July, accompanied by his brother (image credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews)
• May 5, 2021: Blue Origin announced May 5 that it will fly people on its New Shepard suborbital vehicle for the first time July 20, and will auction off one of the seats on that launch. 18)
- The company said that, after years of test flights without anyone on board, it will start flying people on New Shepard. The announcement took place 60 years to the day after the vehicle's namesake, Alan Shepard, became the first American space on the suborbital Mercury 3 launch. The scheduled date of the flight is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.
- The company hinted during its most recent test flight of the vehicle April 14 that it was ready to start flying people on the vehicle. The company used the flight to test procedures for future crew flights, including having company personnel, playing the role of customers, boarding the vehicle during prelaunch preparations, and also practicing exiting the vehicle after landing.
- "We have flown this vehicle 15 times and, after the last flight, we said, ‘It's time. Let's put people on board,'" said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut sales at Blue Origin, in a call with reporters.
- The company did not disclose who would fly on the vehicle, capable of carrying six people, beyond that it will make one seat available to the public via an auction. The company will accept sealed bids through May 19, then go into an unsealed bidding phase, concluding in a live auction June 12. Blue Origin said the proceeds of the auction will go to an affiliated nonprofit organization, the Club for the Future, that supports STEM education activities.
Figure 14: The interior of the New Shepard crew capsule, which will carry people for the first time on a July 20 suborbital launch (image credit: Blue Origin)
- When Blue Origin announced April 29 that it would disclose its plans for selling the first seat on New Shepard, many expected it would formally unveil long-awaited plans to start selling tickets. The company has said little about its ticket sales strategy, including how much they would cost.
- Cornell declined to discuss how the company would sell tickets beyond this initial auction. "We don't have details on the prices for future seats, and we will announce the details of how those future seats will be sold in the future, after this auction." She added the company will take notes of the "most active bidders" in that auction for follow-up on future ticket sales.
- She also said that, after the July 20 flight, "we will have a couple more crewed flights before the end of the year."
- While the company didn't disclose details on ticket sales, the company is sharing more information on the spaceflight experience. Cornell said that those who fly on New Shepard will arrive at the company's West Texas site four days before launch and undergo three days of training. That will include working in a mockup of the New Shepard crew capsule learning procedures for getting in and out of the vehicle as well as emergency protocols.
- Those who fly New Shepard have to meet a number of physical and other conditions, according to a terms and conditions document posted on the company's website. That includes being at least 18 years old, weighing between 50 and 101 kg, being between 152 to 193 cm tall, and able to withstand 3g's of acceleration during launch and 5.5g's "for a few seconds" during reentry.
- Blue Origin didn't disclose how many people signaled an interest in flying on New Shepard by signing up on its website in the last week to find out how they could buy tickets. "I can say that the website has gotten a workout in the last week," Cornell said. "Obviously, we hope that is a good precursor to excitement and participation in the auction on June 12."
- Loizos Heracleous, professor of strategy at the Warwick Business School, noted that there are about six million people worldwide with a net worth of at least $5 million, and thus likely in the addressable market for a flight like this.
- "For some it will be about bragging rights, for others it will be an experience of a lifetime," he said in a statement about why people would be willing to pay a premium to fly on a suborbital vehicle. "In strict financial terms it might not seem a wise decision, but if it's a small part of their disposable income or net worth, they might want to do it."
• May 5, 2021: On July 20th, New Shepard will fly its first astronaut crew to space. We are offering one seat on this first flight to the winning bidder of Blue Origin's online auction. Starting today, anyone can place an opening bid by going to BlueOrigin.com. 19)
Here are the three phases of the auction:
1) May 5-19: Sealed online bidding – you can bid any amount you want on the auction website (no bids are visible)
2) May 19: Unsealed online bidding – bidding becomes visible and participants must exceed the highest bid to continue in the auction
3) June 12: Live auction – the bidding concludes with a live online auction.
- The winning bid amount will be donated to Blue Origin's foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.
- On this day 60 years ago, Alan Shepard made history by becoming the first American to fly to space. In the decades since, fewer than 600 astronauts have been to space above the Kármán Line to see the borderless Earth and the thin limb of our atmosphere. They all say this experience changes them.
- We named our launch vehicle after Alan Shepard to honor his historic flight. New Shepard has flown 15 successful consecutive missions to space and back above the Kármán Line through a meticulous and incremental flight program to test its multiple redundant safety systems. Now, it's time for astronauts to climb onboard.
- This seat will change how you see the world.
Figure 15: Your flight to space and back (image credit: Blue Origin)
Launch: Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin aims to launch its first-ever crewed mission on a date already steeped in spaceflight history, and you can bid for a seat on that flight. The company is targeting July 20 for the debut astronaut launch of its New Shepard vehicle, which is designed to take people and scientific experiments on brief trips to suborbital space (Ref. 18). On that date in 1969, NASA's Apollo 11 mission touched down on the lunar surface, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans ever to set foot on a world beyond Earth.
Flight test program
A multi-year program of flight tests was begun in 2015 and is continuing in 2018. By mid-2016, the test program was sufficiently advanced that Blue Origin has begun flying suborbital research payloads for universities and NASA. A few missions of the flight test program are listed.
• April 14, 2021: Blue Origin completed another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle April 14, putting the company on the verge of finally flying people. 20)
Figure 16: Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital vehicle lifts off April 14 from the company's West Texas test site (image credit: Blue Origin webcast)
- Blue Origin's New Shepard vehicle lifted off from the company's West Texas test site, known as Launch Site One by the company, at 12:51 p.m. EDT. The capsule, separating from its booster after the powered phase of flight, reached a peak altitude of about 106 km before parachuting to a soft landing 10 and a half minutes after liftoff, three minutes after the booster made a powered landing.
- The flight profile for the mission, designated NS-15 by the company, closely followed previous test flights. The key differences for this flight were the activities before and after the flight, as the company tested procedures it will use for later crewed flights.
- About 45 minutes before liftoff, four Blue Origin employees playing the role of customers drove to the pad with other personnel, simulating the activities before an actual crewed flight. Two of them then boarded the capsule, strapping in and testing communications before exiting. They then left the launchpad and returned to mission control before the uncrewed vehicle launched.
- After the capsule landing, those personnel returned to the capsule, in this case to test the process astronauts will follow to exit the capsule at the end of the flight.
- Blue Origin used the webcast to provide some more information about its human spaceflight plans. Customers will arrive at the West Texas site three days before a mission for training, staying in facilities across a highway from the launch site.
- During training, and in final launch preparations, the six astronauts flying on a New Shepard mission will be accompanied by "CrewMember 7," a Blue Origin employee. There will be two employees carrying that role, one accompanying the astronauts as they strap into the capsule and the other that will serve as a capcom, or capsule communicator, in mission control.
- The NS-14 flight carried no people, but instead the company's "Mannequin Skywalker" anthropomorphic test device and more than 25,000 student postcards. Blue Origin noted in the webcast that it planned to donate Mannequin Skywalker after the end of the test program to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
- Exactly when that test program will end and commercial crewed flights will begin remain uncertain. The company offered no updates on its schedule for flying people, either company personnel or customers, during the event. It also did not discuss when it planned to start selling tickets or what price they will charge.
- Company officials, though, continued to hint that crewed missions will begin soon, albeit years behind original projections. "We're getting so close to flying people here at Blue Origin. This is a very, very important step on our march to first human flight," said Ariane Cornell, director of astronaut and orbital sales at Blue Origin, during the company's webcast of the NS-15 mission. "You can almost taste it."
Figure 17: The New Shepard crew capsule lands in the West Texas desert after the NS-15 mission on April 14, 2021 (image credit: Blue Origin)
Figure 18: April 14, 2021: Blue Origin has been flight testing the New Shepard rocket and its redundant safety systems since 2012. The program has completed 15 consecutive successful missions, including three successful tests of the crew escape system, showing it can activate safely in any phase of flight (video credit: Blue Origin)
• December 17, 2018: Blue Origin plans to conduct the next test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle no earlier than Dec. 21 as the company moves closer to flying people into space. 21)
- In a statement Dec. 17, the company said the next New Shepard flight, designated NS-10, will take place Dec. 18 at 9:30 a.m. Eastern from its West Texas test site that has hosted all previous New Shepard tests. The flight, like several past flights, will be webcast. The statement came after the publication by the Federal Aviation Administration of restricted airspace around the company's launch site for a three-day period starting Dec. 18.
- However, the company announced less than an hour before the scheduled launch that it was scrubbing the launch because of a "ground infrastructure issue." The company said late Dec. 18 that, because of additional work needed on that issue, as well as weather, it has rescheduled the launch for no earlier than Dec. 21.
- The flight will be the first for New Shepard since a July 18 launch that tested the abort motor in the crew capsule. The motor fired shortly after the capsule separated from its propulsion module, with the capsule making a regular landing under parachutes while the propulsion module made a powered vertical landing.
- The NS-10 flight will use the same propulsion module and crew capsule as the July flight, but is intended to be a more standard suborbital spaceflight. The vehicle will be carrying nine experiments provided by NASA's Flight Opportunities program, the company said. As with all previous flights, there will be no people on this New Shepard mission, but the company noted that the research payloads play a "role in perfecting technology for a future human presence in space." A second booster recently arrived at the site that the company says will be used for future crewed flights.
- The experiments on the flight are from a mix of universities, institutes and NASA centers. The payloads range from microgravity research payloads in fields like fluid dynamics and planetary science to technology demonstrations that will monitor conditions in the vehicle.
- This New Shepard flight comes less than a week after Virgin Galactic performed the first flight of its SpaceShipTwo vehicle to reach the edge of space. That flight carried four NASA Flight Opportunities payloads. Three of those payloads — a vibration isolation platform from Controlled Dynamics Inc., an experiment to map the behavior of dust particles on planetary surfaces from the University of Central Florida and a biological fluorescent imaging instrument from the University of Florida — are also flying on the New Shepard mission.
- That SpaceShipTwo flight Dec. 13 reached a peak altitude of 82.7 kilometers, above the 50-mile (80.5 km) level where U.S. government agencies award altitude wings but below the 100-kilometer Karman Line often used as the boundary of space. That's led to some debate about whether SpaceShipTwo actually flew to space.
- By contrast, most New Shepard test flights have flown to altitudes above 100 k, including 118.8 km on the latest flight thanks to the additional boost provided by the escape motor. The upcoming flight is also expected to exceed 100 km.
- Both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are preparing to start flying people on their suborbital vehicles in 2019. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, confirmed in an interview after the latest SpaceShipTwo flight that he plans to be on the first commercial SpaceShipTwo flight, which could take place after a handful of additional test flights. "Sometime next year, once the testing is finished, then I'll do my flight," he said.
- Virgin Galactic has about 700 customers who have paid at least a deposit on tickets that cost up to $250,000. Branson said that the company, which stopped selling tickets four years ago after a test flight accident destroyed the first SpaceShipTwo, would resume taking reservations again soon. That ticket price "will go up a bit," Branson said, but decrease a few years later.
- Blue Origin has yet to start selling tickets for New Shepard flights, although one official said in June ticket sales could begin in 2019. Company executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, said earlier this year they hadn't even decided yet on a ticket price for those flights, waiting until the vehicle is further along in its test program before doing so.
- "We continue to be head down on making sure the configuration is good and stable and ready to fly," Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, said in an April interview on the status of New Shepard development. "Once we all feel confident that that's the case, then we'll have the conversation internally about what prices are and what that whole process looks like."
- That process has taken longer than what company officials previously suggested. Speaking at a suborbital research conference in December 2017, Jeff Ashby, director of safety and mission assurance for Blue Origin, said the company was "roughly a year out from human flights, depending on how the test program goes."
- "I'm hopeful it will happen in 2019," Bezos said during an on-stage interview at the Wired25 conference in October when asked when Blue Origin would start flying people on New Shepard. "I was hopeful it would happen in 2018. I keep telling the team that it's not a race. I want this to be the safest space vehicle in history."
• April 30, 2015: Blue Origin successfully launched its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time April 29 on a mission that took the vehicle to the edge of space, but failed to recover a part of the vehicle afterwards. 22)
- The company said that most elements of the vehicle, including its BE-3 main engine developed in-house, performed well. The crew capsule separated from the vehicle's propulsion module and parachuted back to Earth. "Any astronauts on board would have had a very nice journey into space and a smooth return," the company said.
- However, the company said it was unable to recover the propulsion module, which is designed to make a vertical landing using its main engine. "Unfortunately we didn't get to recover the propulsion module because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent," the company said, not going into greater detail about the problem.
- Blue Origin said it had been working to improve the module's hydraulics system prior to the flight, and will incorporate those changes into future modules. "Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we'll be ready to fly again soon," the company said.
- The company, known for its secretive nature, did not announce the test flight in advance. However, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction in the airspace above Blue Origin's Texas test site April 27 for "space flight operations" on April 29.
- FAA officials recently suggested that a test flight was upcoming. "They'll be flying their reusable launch vehicle in the next couple of weeks. Watch the news for that," said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in an April 21 presentation to the National Research Council's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here.
- The company did disclose in early April that it had completed development of its BE-3 engine, but offered no timetable for the test flights beyond starting them later this year.
- "We expect a series of dozens of flights over the extent of the test program," Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said April 7 during a media teleconference about the BE-3. "We expect, over the next couple of years, to be flying regularly with the New Shepard vehicle."
- lue Origin plans to eventually bring New Shepard into service, offering suborbital flights for space tourism and research applications. While the vehicle can be flown remotely, it is designed to carry three or more people to an altitude of at least 100 kilometers.
Figure 19: The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off on its first developmental test flight over Blue Origin's West Texas Launch Site on April 29, 2015. The crew capsule reached an apogee at 93,600 meters before beginning its descent back to Earth (photo credit: Blue Origin)
• April 21, 2015: Blue Origin, the commercial spaceflight company backed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, will soon start flight tests of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official said April 21. 23)
- George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at a meeting of the National Research Council's Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here April 21 that he expected Blue Origin to begin test flights in a "couple of weeks."
- "They'll be flying their reusable launch vehicle in the next couple of weeks. Watch the news for that," Nield said. He did not provide additional details about those test plans, but praised the company's "really professional, first-class organization."
- Blue Origin already possesses an experimental permit from the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation that would allow it to carry out test flights. The permit was originally issued by the FAA in February 2014 and revised this February.
- The permit covers "an unlimited number of flights of the New Shepard System" from Blue Origin's test site in West Texas, approximately 200 kilometers east of El Paso. A copy of the permit posted on the FAA website offers no technical details about the vehicle other than it has separate propulsion and crew modules, which the company has previously disclosed.
2) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin flies payloads on latest New Shepard flight," SpaceNews, 26 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-flies-payloads-on-latest-new-shepard-flight/
3) Elizabeth DiVito, "NASA Technologies Slated for Testing on Blue Origin's New Shepard," NASA, 24 August 2021, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/centers/armstrong/features/nasa-tech-testing-on-blue-origin-shepard.html
4) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin suit stops work on NASA HLS contract with SpaceX," SpaceNews, 19 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-suit-stops-work-on-nasa-hls-contract-with-spacex/
5) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin to perform first New Shepard launch under updated license," SpaceNews, 19 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-to-perform-first-new-shepard-launch-under-updated-license/
6) Jeff Foust, "lue Origin sues NASA over Human Landing System contract," SpaceNews, 16 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-sues-nasa-over-human-landing-system-contract/
7) Jeff Foust, "GAO report details rejection of HLS protests," SpaceNews, 16 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/gao-report-details-rejection-of-hls-protests/
8) Sandra Erwin, "Tory Bruno says the challenges with BE-4 are real but the engine is moving forward," SpaceNews, 5 August 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/tory-bruno-says-the-challenges-with-be-4-are-real-but-the-engine-is-moving-forward/
9) Jeff Foust, "Bezos offers billions in incentives for NASA lunar lander contract," Space News, 26 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/bezos-offers-billions-in-incentives-for-nasa-lunar-lander-contract/
10) Jeff Foust, "New Shepard astronauts rave about suborbital spaceflight experience as Bezos faces backlash," SpaceNews, 20 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/new-shepard-astronauts-rave-about-suborbital-spaceflight-experience-as-bezos-faces-backlash/
11) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin launches Bezos on first crewed New Shepard flight," SpaceNews, 20 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-launches-bezos-on-first-crewed-new-shepard-flight/
12) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin ready for first crewed New Shepard launch," SpaceNews, 18 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-ready-for-first-crewed-new-shepard-launch/
13) Jeff Foust, "Dutch teenager to fly on New Shepard," SpaceNews, 15 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/dutch-teenager-to-fly-on-new-shepard/
14) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin donates New Shepard auction proceeds to space nonprofit groups," SpaceNews, 15 July 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-donates-new-shepard-auction-proceeds-to-space-nonprofit-groups/
15) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin auctions New Shepard seat for $28 million," SpaceNews, 12 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-auctions-new-shepard-seat-for-28-million/
16) Jeff Foust, "Bezos to go on first crewed New Shepard flight," SpaceNews, 7 June 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/bezos-to-go-on-first-crewed-new-shepard-flight/
17) "Blue Origin announces that Jeff Bezos and his brother Mark will join the auction winner on New Shepard's first human flight on July 20th," Blue Origin, 7 June 2021, URL: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/jeff-bezos-first-human-flight
18) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin to fly first people on New Shepard in July," SpaceNews, 5 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-to-fly-first-people-on-new-shepard-in-july/
19) "Bid For the Very First Seat on New Shepard," Blue Origin News, 5 May 2021: https://www.blueorigin.com/news/bid-for-the-very-first-seat-on-new-shepard
20) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin aces dress rehearsal for New Shepard crewed flights," SpaceNews, 14 April, 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-aces-dress-rehearsal-for-new-shepard-crewed-flights/
21) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin gearing up for next New Shepard test flight," SpaceNews, 17 December 2018, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-gearing-up-for-next-new-shepard-test-flight/
22) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin's New Shepard Vehicle Makes First Test Flight," SpaceNews, 30 April 2015, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origins-new-shepard-vehicle-makes-first-test-flight/
23) Jeff Foust, "Blue Origin To Begin Test Flights Within Weeks," SpaceNews, 21 April 2015, URL: https://spacenews.com/blue-origin-to-begin-test-flights-within-weeks/
The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).