The New Shepard space vehicle blasts off on its first developmental test flight over Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Site April 29. The crew capsule reached apogee at 93,600 meters before beginning its descent back to Earth. Credit: Blue Origin photo

Spotlight Might Just Suit the Traditionally Publicity-shy Firm

The first developmental test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital rocket April 29 was an impressive demonstration that bodes well for the company’s lofty if somewhat murky ambitions, which include being the future engine supplier to the firm that the U.S. government relies on today to launch its most important military and scientific payloads.

Blue Origin’s same-day announcement of the successful flight was accompanied by dramatic video footage that shows the vehicle’s liftoff and climb to nearly 100,000 meters in altitude, followed by the parachute-aided descent and landing of its unoccupied crew capsule. It was by far the most detailed and timely account of a Blue Origin test to date, one that should go a long way toward convincing any remaining skeptics that this is indeed a serious company.

Building on that credibility will be important as Congress, the U.S. Air Force and the White House wrangle over how best to go about replacing the Russian-built engine that currently powers United Launch Alliance’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. Congress wants the Air Force to begin work on a government-funded engine immediately, but the service is hesitant, in large part because ULA has chosen to pursue a new rocket dubbed Vulcan whose main engine is being developed and funded by Blue Origin.

ULA’s decision to undertake a potentially risky new rocket development effort rather than wait for the government to fund a new engine that presumably could be plugged into the existing Atlas 5 design has left many scratching their heads. One source of uncertainty is the fact that Blue Origin has never developed, let alone mass-produced, an engine as big and powerful as its planned BE-4.

Blue Origin, bankrolled by founder Jeff Bezos, has long avoided the spotlight, despite intense interest in its programs and plans. Maintaining secrecy is certainly the prerogative of a privately held company, but if Blue Origin wants the government, Congress in particular, to believe in the BE-4, it should consider lifting the veil a bit.

ULA is a trusted provider of critical launch services to the government, and the Vulcan is the centerpiece of its plan to maintain that status, even as its current monopoly gives way to competition against SpaceX, whose Falcon 9 rocket has just been certified to carry military payloads. Because of this, the government has a direct interest in having insight into Blue Origin’s progress on the BE-4. This could help put congressional skeptics at ease with ULA’s strategy for weaning itself from reliance on Russian-built engines.

Like any rocket engine development program, the BE-4 is bound to run into one or two hiccups, which in a more transparent environment are likelier to be reported by the media. But being up front about any developmental issues that might occur is arguably better from a public relations and overall strategic standpoint than maintaining silence while rumors — valid or not — bubble up and fester.

An excellent case for transparency was made by the recent New Shepard test, which was supposed to feature a controlled landing and recovery of the vehicle’s reusable propulsion module. The module separated from the capsule as planned near the top of its ascent, but was destroyed following what Blue Origin said was a loss of pressure in its hydraulic system. The company’s disclosure of the malfunction — one otherwise would have wondered why the propulsion module’s final descent was absent from the videos — did nothing to take the luster off of its achievement.

In fairness, and to its credit, Blue Origin seems to be emerging slowly from its shell. Unlike some of its previous tests, for example, the April 29 flight was announced the day it happened, and the accompanying images and videos had a polish that’s indicative of a company that’s almost ready to open up for business. The company’s president, Robert Meyerson, has made himself more visible of late — in mid April, he appeared for the first time as a panelist on one of the industry’s biggest stages: the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A higher profile naturally goes hand in hand with success, of course, and the New Shepard flight has taken Blue Origin to a new level on both fronts. Here’s hoping the company continues on that trajectory.