CAPE CANAVERAL — The rockets Blue Originbuilds and launches on the Space Coast of Florida will be some of the world’s largest, the company announced Monday, while also hinting at plans for eventual moon missions.
Jeff Bezos, the billionaire Amazon.com CEO and founder of Seattle-based Blue Origin, revealed new details about the planned orbital rockets, including their name: New Glenn, paying tribute to John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth.
Coming in two versions standing 270 feet and 313 feet tall, the New Glenn will trail only NASA’s 322-foot Space Launch System rocket in height.
The basic two-stage New Glenn, burning liquified natural gas and liquid oxygen, will generate 3.9 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines when it blasts off fromCape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36, possibly before the end of the decade.
“New Glenn is designed to launch commercial satellites and to fly humans into space,” Bezos wrote in an update Monday.
Though taller, the New Glenn is not as powerful as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which will generate more than 5 million pounds of thrust. SpaceX had hoped to debut the Falcon Heavy before the end of this year in a launch from Kennedy Space Center, but the timeline is unknown following the Sept. 1 launch pad explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket.
NASA’s SLS rocket, targeting a first launch from KSC in late 2018, will produce 8.4 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.
Like SpaceX with its Falcon rockets, Blue Origin plans to recover and reuse the New Glenn’s first-stage boosters, which measure 23 feet in diameter — nearly double the width of a Falcon 9 booster. Bezos offered no information on launch costs, but he believes reusability is essential to lowering costs and to expanding access to space.
Blue Origin has already proven its ability to land and re-fly smaller boosters, doing so four times with its suborbital New Shepard vehicle — named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space — during unmanned test flights at the company’s private range in Texas.
A fifth unmanned test is planned next month that will abort the New Shepard crew capsule from its booster mid-flight, while it is experiencing peak aerodynamic pressure, to simulate a crew’s ability to escape a failing rocket.
Bezos said lessons learned from New Shepard, which could begin flying paying passengers in 2018, have informed the design of New Glenn.
Bezos’ introduction of New Glenn came almost exactly a year after he visited Launch Complex 36 to announce Blue Origin’s decision to build and launch orbital rockets inBrevard County.
The company in May broke ground on a 475,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Exploration Park, at the southern edge of KSC on Merritt Island, that will stand up to eight stories tall and longer than two football fields.
The factory could be ready to start producing rocket stages in late 2017 or early 2018.
Bezos said Monday that the basic two-stage New Glenn rocket could be bolstered by a third stage for “demanding beyond-LEO missions,” or those beyond low Earth orbit. The third stage would be powered by a hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine like those flying now on the New Shepard.
Such missions might include launches of very large satellites that currently require heavy-lift rockets to reach high orbits, but Bezos teased that Blue Origin was preparing for deep space flights as it pursues his vision to have “millions of people living and working in space.”
He said a vehicle named “New Armstrong” — presumably after first-man-on-the-moonNeil Armstrong — was next up on the company’s drawing board.
“But that’s a story for the future,” Bezos said.
The BE-4 engine that Blue Origin is developing for its own orbital rockets, each producing 550,000 pounds of thrust, is also the leading candidate to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket. A big upcoming decision from Blue Origin is where it decides to build those engines, and the company has said Florida is among the contenders.