Blue Origin plans growth spurt this year

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KENT, Wash. — Blue Origin plans to grow significantly over the next year as the company ramps up development of its BE-4 engine and an orbital launch vehicle, while continuing a series of test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

In a first-of-its-kind media tour of the company’s headquarters here March 8, Blue Origin executives, including founder Jeff Bezos, said that the company’s multiple lines of work will lead it to hire several hundred people this year.

“We’re at 600 people now, and we’re going to be, over the next year, going above 1,000,” Bezos said. “A lot of the people that we’re hiring will be for BE-4 and for our orbital launch vehicle.” The total could approach 1,200 employees, he added, counting the company’s development of a manufacturing facility and launch site in Florida for its orbital launch vehicle.

That projected growth in its workforce is forcing Blue Origin to take several measures to accommodate those new employees. “We’re busting out of the seams right now,” Bezos said of its headquarters, which covers nearly 28,000 square meters. The company is renovating part of the building to make room for additional offices, and just leased space in a nearby office building.

Blue Origin is also planning revisions to the factory floor this year to accommodate development and initial production of the BE-4. That includes a “BE-4 highway” that individual engines will follow during their assembly, culminating in a two-story platform where final assembly of the engines, about six meters tall, is performed.

Photo released by Blue Origin to media organizations invited to tour the company's Kent, Washington factory March 8.
Photo released by Blue Origin to media organizations invited to tour the company’s Kent, Washington factory March 8.

Blue Origin plans to carry out initial, low-rate production of the BE-4 at its headquarters, building up to 12 a year for use on the company’s own launch vehicle and, as currently planned, United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan launch vehicle. The company plans to later develop a separate BE-4 manufacturing facility for higher-rate production, and is considering a range of potential sites for that factory.

Much of the tour was designed to show off the company’s progress in developing the BE-4, as company employees discussed progress made on various components of the engine. Bezos and other company officials said they remain on track to start full-scale engine tests by the end of this year.

Bezos was less forthcoming about details with the orbital vehicle. “Later this year I’m hoping we’ll be in a position to release a bunch of details about the orbital vehicle,” including its payload capacity. “It will not be a small vehicle, but it will be the smallest orbital vehicle we’ll build.”

That vehicle, which has the nickname “Very Big Brother,” is scheduled to make its first flight by the end of 2019. “We already have significant teams of people working on the orbital vehicle, and we have had for years now,” he said, saying work on the vehicle has been in progress for at least three years.

Blue Origin released this photo of its offices following a March 8 media tour.
Blue Origin released this photo of its offices following a March 8 media tour.

Bezos also said the company plans another test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle “soon,” without providing a more specific schedule. That vehicle last flew in January from the company’s test site in West Texas, marking the first reuse of a vertical takeoff and landing rocket.

Several other New Shepard vehicles are under construction at Blue Origin’s headquarters. The company plans to initially build six of the vehicles, which take 9 to 12 months to construct, and then, after completing an extensive test flight program, let the demand for space tourism and research determine how many additional vehicles may be needed.

Bezos has provided the vast majority of the funding for Blue Origin to date. Bezos declined to specify how much of his personal wealth he has put into the company, but said it was more than the approximately $500 million invested so far in Virgin Galactic. “Let’s just say it’s a lot,” he said.

The media tour is the latest sign that Blue Origin, once known for being extremely secretive about its activities, is opening up. Bezos acknowledged that the company was opening up because it now had hardware emerging from a years-long development “pipeline.”

“The reason you’re seeing this change,” he said, “is that stuff is finally coming out of this big long pipeline. It took a long time to get the pipeline filled, and now really exciting cool stuff, not just hype, is coming out the other end.”

“I’ve always said that space is really easy to overhype,” he said. “We’ll talk about Blue when we have something to talk about.”

Blue Origin workers move a spacecraft component at the company's Kent, Washington, factory. Credit: Blue Origin
Blue Origin workers move a spacecraft component at the company’s Kent, Washington, factory. Credit: Blue Origin