Jeff Bezos announces Blue Origin’s first orbital rocket, the New Glenn

Early this morning, Jeff Bezos revealed plans for the next Blue Origin rocket, the New Glenn.

Unlike their New Shepard rocket, which is only capable of up-and-down suborbital launches, New Glenn will be the company’s first rocket capable of bringing payloads and humans into orbit around the Earth.

Similar to New Shepard, New Glenn is designed with a recoverable booster and is intended to be reused, marking an exciting development in the space industry. There are currently no reusable heavy-lift rockets operational today (although SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is expected to take its first flight later this year).

The reveal of New Glenn was much anticipated. Back in June, Blue Origin broke ground on a new facility in Cape Canaveral specifically to develop orbital rockets. The site, which is about 75% of the size of SpaceX’s rocket facility in California, will be large enough to accommodate manufacturing, processing, integration, and testing of New Glenn.

Artist rendition of Blue Origin orbital rocket facility / Image courtesy of Blue Origin

Artist rendition of Blue Origin orbital rocket facility / Image courtesy of Blue Origin


Power To Go Orbital

New Glenn will make use of seven BE-4 engines burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen. The second stage of the rocket will use a  single vacuum-optimized BE-4 engine.

Using the same booster, New Glenn could also be configured as a 3-stage rocket, capable of bringing payloads farther than low-Earth-orbit. The third stage would use a single vacuum-optimized BE-3 engine burning liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen.

While the BE-3 engine is currently used on the New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin has been working with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to build the new, high-performance BE-4 engine since 2011. In addition to Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, the BE-4 will be used on ULA’s reusable Vulcan rocket currently under development and expected to fly in 2019.


Combustion testing on the BE-4 engine / Image courtesy of Blue Origin

Suborbital -> Orbital -> Lunar?

Today’s announcement reveals interesting insights into Blue Origin’s rocket-naming strategy and – potentially – what’s in store for Blue Origin’s future.

Fourth successful launch of the same New Shepard vehicle during test flights / Image courtesy of Blue Origin

Fourth successful launch of the same New Shepard vehicle during test flights / Image courtesy of Blue Origin

Their New Shepard suborbital rocket, which is still undergoing the necessary testing before capable of conducting commercial/crewed flights, is named after Alan Shepard, the first American to reach space. Shepard achieved this milestone on a suborbital flight in 1961.

“Building, flying, landing, and re-flying New Shepard has taught us so much about how to design for practical, operable reusability. And New Glenn incorporates all of those learnings.” Jeff Bezos, Founder of Blue Origin

New Glenn is named after John Glenn, the first American to complete an orbit around the Earth.

In an email to subscribers, Bezos stated that the next rocket down the line would be named New Armstrong, and added “But that’s a story for the future.” As the first person to step foot on the moon, a rocket named after Alan Shepard indicates a possible focus on human-rated rockets capable of lunar destinations.

If this is the case, however, it’s still many years down the road. New Glenn itself won’t likely take its maiden flight for a couple of years.

“We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade from historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida.” Jeff Bezos, Founder of Blue Origin


How Does New Glenn Compare To Other Rockets?

A good way to compare rockets is their payload capacity to various orbits (e.g. how much stuff can that rocket take to low-Earth-orbit, medium-Earth-orbit, Geostationary orbit, etc?). This calculation depends on a number of factors including the mass of the rocket, which we don’t yet know. But Bezos did provide New Glenn’s thrust capability, which is a good indicator of how capable New Glenn will ultimately be.

And at 3.85 million pounds of thrust the 2-stage New Glenn rocket will be more powerful than the most powerful rocket currently in operation – the Delta IV Heavy provided by ULA, which has a liftoff thrust of 2.1 million pounds.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, however, will trump that capability with over 5 million pounds of liftoff thrust once in operation. The Falcon Heavy is scheduled to fly for the first time by the end of this year.

Even so, once Blue Origin gets New Glenn off the ground, they’ll be a provider of one of the most powerful rockets in the world. The fact that they have included reusability into this design is revolutionary. SpaceX, Blue Origin, and ULA all have plans to launch reusable heavy-lift rockets by the end of the decade, which marks an exciting change for the space industry.

The Times They Are A Changin’

The combination of competition and reusable rockets are expected to bring launch prices down even further, making access to space more affordable for researchers and astronauts alike.

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step.” Jeff Bezos, Founder of Blue Origin

The fact that the fifth wealthiest person in the world is among other entrepreneurs setting their sights – and betting their wealth – on finding new ways to make space exploration affordable is already proving to make waves in this industry.