Blue Origin announces orbital-class rocket

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

Blue Origin released this infographic to accompany the New Glenn announcement. Credit: Blue Origin

The announcement

Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, might be known for keeping a relatively low profile insofar as Blue Origin is concerned, but one cannot accuse him of not knowing how to make an entrance. In a surprise email on September 12, 2016, Bezos revealed to the world the company’s plan to build and launch its first orbital-class rocket by the end of this decade: the New Glenn.

Named after the first American to orbit Earth, John Glenn, the rocket will be the company’s entry into the reusable orbital-class rocket market, currently occupied by a single player — SpaceX. Although Blue Origin was the first commercial company to launch a rocket and crew-capable vehicle into space and recover both for later re-use, those flights were only suborbital.

Blue Origin has taken the expertise gained from the suborbital flights of their New Shepard vehicle — named after America’s first suborbital astronaut, Alan Shepard — and scaled it up just a bit. OK, perhaps more than “just a bit.” New Shepard’s booster, sans capsule, tops out at approximately 52 feet (16 meters), whereas the smaller version of New Glenn towers at 270 feet (82 meters). It would appear as if Blue Origin is bypassing the small-to-medium class of launch vehicles and going straight to a heavy/super heavy lift vehicle (HLV/SHLV) rocket, right?

Perhaps. Though Bezos gave a few details of the mammoth rocket, payload capability was not mentioned. This notable omission prompted some to begin guessing the vehicle’s low Earth orbit (LEO) numbers, with estimates ranging from 35 metric tons to as high as 60 metric tons, placing the rocket squarely in the same category as the Falcon Heavy and approaching the capabilities of SLS Block I, nominally rated at 70 metric tons.

However, it’s important to note that those estimates are just that – estimates. Based on Bezos stating New Glenn would produce 3.85 million pounds of thrust at launch, pundits and prognosticators quickly began some back-of-the-napkin calculating to arrive at that wildly-disparate range of numbers.

What do we KNOW?

So, if we don’t yet know how much payload New Glenn can loft to LEO, what do we know? Well, for starters, the rocket will be big. Exceptionally big. Nearly “Saturn V big” in its three-stage configuration. Whatever its orbital numbers prove to be, one can be assured that it’ll present a spectacular sight when it lifts off from Launch Complex 36 by the close of the decade.

It will also be produced in at least two variants: a two-stage model, sporting seven BE-4 engines in its first stage and a single, vacuum-optimized BE-4 in its second stage…and a three-stage model, essentially its two-stage sibling with the addition of a third stage outfitted with a hydrolox-powered BE-3 engine, topping out at 313 feet (95.4 meters).

The addition of the third stage will allow New Glenn to perform ambitious beyond-LEO missions. While the first two stages burn a methalox mixture — liquid methane and liquid oxygen — that fuel combination doesn’t provide the efficiency desired for deep space missions. Enter the flight-proven BE-3 from the company’s New Shepard vehicle. Now optimized to work in the vacuum of space, the hydrolox — liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen — engine provides the increased performance level seen in workhorse engines like Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10, long a staple of many deep space missions.

The stages will all be 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter, considerably larger than SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which has a payload fairing measuring 17 feet (5.2 meters). What does this mean? It could provide space for a large-volume payloads – habitation modules, spacecraft, and deep space observatories – without the need to build that hardware to fold into a smaller payload fairing. That would have the benefit of reducing the complexity of certain spacecraft, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, allowing them to be launched in a fully-deployed configuration…or nearly so.

One more thing…

Ever the tease, Mr. Bezos closed his email with this: “Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last of course. Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.”

New Armstrong? Guess where that one is going.

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