WASHINGTON — Blue Origin expects to be ready to resume launches of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle in the next few weeks as it completes its recovery from an in-flight anomaly nine months ago.
Speaking at the Financial Times’ “Investing in Space” event June 6, Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith said the company was on the verge of resuming New Shepard launches, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
New Shepard has been grounded since a failure during a September 2022 payload-only flight designated NS-23. Blue Origin said in March there was a structural failure in the vehicle’s BE-3PM engine nozzle caused by temperatures that exceeded its design. The nozzle failure caused the crew capsule’s abort motor to fire, sending it to a safe parachute landing, while the propulsion module was destroyed.
“We knew very soon after the event what exactly happened,” Smith said, saying that the company has been “working through with the FAA on the process by which we go back to flight.”
In the company’s March announcement, Blue Origin said it expected to resume flights “soon” starting with a reflight of the NS-23 mission, but was not more specific about the schedule. The FAA said then it needed to review Blue Origin’s plans before allowing those flights to resume.
“We’re now dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s to get through that, as well as getting our system ready to go fly again,” Smith said. “New Shepard, from that standpoint, should be ready to go fly within the next few weeks.”
The mishap and the hiatus in launches has not affected demand for space tourism flights on the vehicle, with new customers having signed up in the last nine months. “People saw a very safe system,” he said, with “a real abort scenario where the capsule came down fine and was ready to go the next day.”
New Glenn and other business
Smith was less forthcoming about the schedule for the first launch of Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, which was once projected to fly in 2020.
“If you want to know what the launch date is for New Glenn, I can give you one but it’s going to be wrong,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s going to arrive early or arrive late.”
He said the company has flight hardware for the vehicle coming together, as well as preparations of its launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The vehicle’s BE-4 engines are one of the larger “pacing items” for the launch, he noted.
The New Glenn manifest for the first few years is full, Smith said, but did not disclose how many launches are on that manifest. It includes 12 launches for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband constellation announced in April 2022, with an option for up to 15 more.
Smith described Blue Origin as a company that shifted upon his arrival as CEO in 2017 from a research and development mindset to a more commercial focus with several lines of business. That includes New Shepard and New Glenn, as well as the BE-4 engines it produces both for New Glenn and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur. The company also won a $3.4 billion NASA award May 19 to develop a second lunar lander for the Artemis lunar exploration campaign and is partnered with Sierra Space and other companies on the Orbital Reef commercial space station project.
“When I joined Blue, we had very, very little revenue,” he said. “Now we have hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue as well as billions of dollars in orders, so we’re in a very good position.”
The New Shepard business line has “good overall margins,” he said, but did not elaborate. He acknowledged a tension between profitability and investment, particularly for what he described as “capital-intensive” projects like launch vehicles. “It will always be a balance of how much you want to invest versus how much you want to make this self-sustaining.”
Blue Origin has long relied on investment from its founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos. Several years ago, Bezos said he was putting $1 billion a year into Blue Origin. Smith declined to provide updated figures other than to say that Bezos is making “significant” investments into the company.
As for a timeline for profitability for Blue Origin, said, Smith, “it goes back to how much Jeff wants to invest.”