In an email to Blue Origin fans this morning, founder Jeff Bezos announced that the company broke ground on their orbital vehicle manufacturing site in Florida.
At 750,000 square feet, the new custom-built facility is designed to be large enough to accommodate manufacturing, processing, integration, and testing of orbital rockets. To put that size in perspective, SpaceX’s rocket facility in Hawthorne, California is nearly one million square feet.
Bezos stated that the entire rocket would be manufactured in this facility with the exception of the rocket engines themselves.
While the suborbital New Shepard vehicle uses Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine, the orbital rocket will use a BE-4 engine, currently under development at their 260,000 square-foot facility in Kent, Washington. The company is working with the United Launch Alliance on BE-4 development. Scheduled to be flight-ready in 2019, the new engine could be integrated on both the Blue Origin orbital vehicle and ULA’s Vulcan rocket.
When it comes time to ramp up development of the BE-4 engine, Blue Origin will select a new location to build a larger facility.
“Initial BE-4 engine production will occur at our Kent facility while we conduct a site selection process later this year for a larger engine production facility to accommodate higher production rates.” Jeff Bezos, founder Blue Origin.
Orbital launches are the next big step for Bezos’ rocket company.
To date, they’ve focused on perfecting the suborbital rocket business with repeated launches (and landings) of the New Shepard vehicle. In fact, this month Blue Origin continued to prove out their reusable rocket capability with the fourth launch and landing of a single New Shepard rocket and crew capsule.
These suborbital launches are great for space tourism – Bezos has stated that they’re working to bring humans into space as early as 2018 – and even for conducting research in a weightless environment.
However, if Blue Origin wants to get into the larger market of launching satellites, they need to develop an orbital rocket.
Compared to suborbital launches, orbital launches are much more difficult and require more power and technical complexity.
Suborbital launches simply need to travel high enough to reach outer space (considered by many to be 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, above the Earth), and come back down to the ground. Orbital launches, however, must travel both high enough and fast enough laterally to maintain their orbit around the Earth.
This will be Blue Origin’s next big challenge.
“It’s exciting to see the bulldozers in action–we’re clearing the way for the production of a reusable fleet of orbital vehicles that we will launch and land, again and again.” Jeff Bezos, founder Blue Origin
While the development of the orbital manufacturing facility is just getting started, Bezos stated that it should be complete by December, 2017. With the BE-4 engine slated for flight-readiness in 2019, we will hopefully get to witness a Blue Origin orbital launch, and perhaps an attempted landing, in the not-too-distant future.