Enlarge /. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, speaks at the 32nd Space Symposium in 2016. A few months later, the company would officially announce the development of the giant New Glenn rocket.
In the fall of 2017, shortly after becoming Chief Executive Officer of Blue Origin, Bob Smith received a comprehensive briefing on the state of the New Glenn missile program. The scheduled launch date for the massive, reusable rocket was 2020, he was told.
When Smith assessed the progress made so far at New Glenn and drew on his many years of experience at Honeywell Aerospace, he soon came to the conclusion that this start date was unreasonable. "This is not a launch program for 2020," he said at the meeting. "This is a program for 2022 at best."
Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not in attendance for this, but his response was that he would absolutely not accept a revision of the launch date for the large orbital rocket. Blue Origin should be upbeat with its projections, Bezos said. And then they should fulfill these projections.
The Bezos missile company, of course, did not live up to these predictions. Not only did New Glenn not launch in 2020, but Blue Origin announced last week that it wouldn't launch before the fourth quarter of 2022 at the earliest. As part of its announcement, Blue Origin didn't blame much for the missile's delay either – instead, the company mainly blamed the delay on a potential customer, the Department of Defense.
"Who does that?" asked a former employee of the company. "That excuse doesn't make sense."
Blue Origin's New Glenn project is incredibly ambitious. If successfully developed, it would offer a revolutionary heavy-lift service for Earth orbit, geostationary space, and even the moon. So what really went wrong? Ars spoke to several former employees and industry representatives who were familiar with the company for this story.
A fateful decision
As part of his overall space strategy, Bezos has long thought about building a large, reusable orbital rocket. Step one was learning how to reuse missiles with the much smaller New Shepard launch system, which consists of a single engine booster and capsule. And the company's engineers have – in the past five years, New Shepard has successfully completed more than a dozen suborbital missions with beautiful rocket landings.
But long before New Shepard took its first flight, Bezos was already deep in the planning of his next rocket. During a December 2011 meeting with then NASA Assistant Administrator Lori Garver, Bezos discussed an orbital rocket that could challenge SpaceX's Falcon 9 booster. As Christian Davenport tells in his book The Space Barons, Bezos said to Garver at the time: "I want to tell you about my big rocket."
The "big rocket" of the time, known publicly as New Glenn more than half a decade later, wasn't quite as big as New Glenn imagines it is today. Instead of being powered by seven BE-4 engines and being almost as tall as NASA's famous Saturn V rocket, Bezos originally envisioned a more modest rocket, the one with the single-stick rocket Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance was comparable to the Delta Launch Alliance. In some iterations, New Glenn only had three main engines.
This would have been a more incremental step for a startup company that has not yet put an ounce of material into orbit. But instead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital missile, Bezos ultimately decided to jump straight to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. "It's like NASA went straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but had to make the Saturn V reusable too," said a former Blue Origin employee.
Instead of crawling, Bezos asked his engineering team to start sprinting onto the launch pad. The technical challenges involved in building such a large rocket are great enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company will have to restore it from the start. SpaceX experienced a learning curve with the Falcon 9 and was only able to successfully restore the first stage on the 20th launch of the rocket. Blue Origin engineers are expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its first mission.
The decision to skip the "walk" portion of corporate development cost Blue Origin a lot of money, according to sources. The company's engineering teams, made up of intelligent and talented employees, are facing formidable technical challenges. And there are so many lessons to be learned from New Shepard – the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust and New Glenn will have nearly 4 million.
It's not just the tech challenging. Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style, complaining that he was acting too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to be more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble New Space company. To become a startup. But from Smith's point of view, he is trying to implement a cultural change from a hobby shop atmosphere to that of a large aerospace company that can win important contracts for NASA and the Department of Defense.
As a result, Blue Origin is now juggling a number of other major projects alongside New Glenn. There are ongoing efforts to get people on suborbital New Shepard flights, which can be as early as late spring or early summer. This was a long slog as Bezos once suggested that humans could fly on the suborbital launch system as early as 2017.
Work is underway on the BE-4 engine itself, which will ultimately power New Glenn. As part of the development process, Blue Origin engineers solved significant problems with turbo pumps. Technicians and engineers are working hard to get ready-to-fly BE-4 rocket engines to a key customer, United Launch Alliance, by the summer. This is probably Blue Origin's most immediate priority.
Blue Origin also heads the "national team," which includes industry heavyweights like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman trying to build a lander for human missions to the moon. This is a heated, high profile competition with two other bidders, SpaceX and a team led by Dynetics. The price is billions of dollars in contracts and tremendous prestige when it comes to getting astronauts to the surface of the moon. NASA is expected to pick a finalist or two in April to move forward. Bezos absolutely wants to assert himself here.
An artist's representation of a fabricated environment that could exist in space in the future.
The design was inspired by Gerard O & # 39; Neill, a professor Bezos met as a student at Princeton University.
Bezos said the cylinders could have natural environments or cities.
Up to 1 million people could live in any habitat.
Bezos sees this as a more viable outcome for human growth than other worlds like Mars.
How does Bob Smith manage these programs internally? Obviously, New Glenn has taken a back seat for the time being. The vehicle's delay until the fourth quarter of 2022 – and let's face it, that is, at least 2023 – is due to a combination of two things. First, there's the enormous engineering challenge that stems from Bezos' decision to go for a larger New Glenn design. Second, Blue Origin just has higher priorities right now.
The sources for this article agreed that none of this reflected a decrease in interest in space by Jeff Bezos, who is still the richest person in the world. He is a firm believer in exploring the cosmos and feels that it is his job to build the infrastructure that will enable people to build factories in space, develop artificial worlds known as O & # 39; Neill cylinders are, and to preserve the earth.
Bezos' vision is compelling. He recently announced the decision to withdraw from Amazon in order to have more time to work on Blue Origin and possibly allow him to better focus on that vision.