CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Blue Origin announced Sept. 15 that it will establish a manufacturing facility and launch site here for its planned orbital launch vehicle, which the company expects to start launching by 2020.
At a press conference on the site of Launch Complex 36, a former Atlas launch pad, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said the company would soon break ground on both a factory and a launch site for a reusable orbital vehicle for flying payloads and people.
“The site saw its last launch in 2005, and the pad has stood silent for more than ten years. Too long,” Bezos said. “We can’t wait to fix that.”
That orbital vehicle, discussed by Bezos for the first time at the event, is a two-stage design with a reusable lower stage and an expendable upper stage. The lower stage will use the BE-4 engine Blue Origin is developing, and the upper stage the BE-3 the company already developed for its New Shepard suborbital vehicle.
Bezos said the vehicle’s first stage is designed to land vertically, either on a ship in the ocean — an approach the company patented, only to have that patent disputed by SpaceX — or back on land. “It’s an architecture we have a lot of experience with from our New Shepard program,” he said. “It’s a great architecture because it scales to unusually large size.”
Bezos said the vehicle, which doesn’t yet have an official name, is designed for launching satellites as well as people. He declined, though, to specify its payload capacity, saying the company would release more details about the vehicle next year.
Most of the vehicle will be manufactured at a facility the company plans to build in Exploration Park, a business park adjacent to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). “We’re talking about bringing raw aluminum and raw carbon fiber here, and it’ll be milled and formed and welded here,” he said in a briefing with reporters after the event. “It’s not just final assembly.”
One exception may be the engines. “Where the engines are produced is not yet determined,” he said. On Sept. 10, however, United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin announced an agreement to expand production facilities for the BE-4 engine at Blue Origin’s development facility in Kent, Washington. ULA is considering using the BE-4 on the first stage of its new Vulcan launch vehicle.
Once built at Exploration Park, the vehicles will be trucked over to Launch Complex 36. That site will host a launch pad and a vehicle assembly building, as well as a test stand for acceptance testing of the BE-4 engines.
Bezos did not give a timetable for building the facilities, but said work would start “very soon” on the factory. “The Exploration Park facilities will be some of the first to come on line,” he said.
Blue Origin will invest more than $200 million in its Florida facilities, creating 330 jobs, Florida Gov. Rick Scott said in remarks at the event. State officials said that up to 12 states competed to win the factory and launch site.
Bezos said that the company received “detailed bids” from five states, which he did not identify. “There were pluses and minuses to all of the options, and Florida, in our opinion, was the best choice,” he said. “A big part of that is the talent pool here.”
Blue Origin was originally interested in a site called Shiloh just north of KSC. That site, though, faced opposition from some residents who were concerned about the environmental impact of building a launch site there.
Bezos said he became convinced that Launch Complex 36, within the boundaries of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, was a suitable alternative. “We became very encouraged we went through the process about how forward leaning the Air Force is, and NASA, on making sure that LC-36 can be operated in a very commercially favorable way,” he said. “We got comfortable with that.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that he helped put pressure on the Air Force to be more accommodating to commercial ventures like Blue Origin. That included what he called “friendly persuasion” of the Secretary of the Air Force at a meeting with NASA and FAA officials at an unspecified date in Washington. He said Air Force officials are now “totally on board” commercial use of facilities at Cape Canaveral.
There are no plans to build or fly the company’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle from Florida, Bezos said. Those launches will continue to take place at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, where New Shepard flew to an altitude of 93.5 kilometers on an April test flight. A second test flight is planned before the end of the year, he said.