Blue Origin, the secretive spaceflight startup endowed by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is at work on separate vehicles for two different flight profiles: a suborbital vertical-takeoff-and-landing spacecraft called New Shepard, and a seven-seat orbital capsule so far known only as Space Vehicle.
Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of business development and strategy, lifted the curtain a little on the Kent, Wash.-based company in a brief interview April 27, revealing that while the Space Vehicle will fly to orbit on an Atlas V in early flights, the company plans to build its own partially reusable launch vehicle “several years in the future” for orbital flight.
The Space Vehicle under development as part of’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) seed-money effort will return to Earth by parachute, while the New Shepard will return suborbital space tourists and scientific researchers to a powered vertical landing reminiscent of the DC-X and DC-XA testbeds flown by the and , respectively, in the 1990s.
Initially the orbital Space Vehicle will use a solid-fuel pusher type launch abort system (LAS), positioned in the center of the capsule below the crew. Set for testing later this year to check out its thrust-vector control system, the solid-fuel LAS is designed to be carried to orbit and recovered.
Alexander, a former White House space-policy advisor who later worked as head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, says the company is still trading that approach, and may adopt the liquid-fueled pusher technique used by some other CCDev vehicles that allows the propellant to be used in orbit.
“We’re using the solid for our suborbital demonstration of it,” he says. “For the orbital system for the Space Vehicle we’re trading solids and liquids and combined fuel and all that sort of stuff. We’re trading all that in our system requirements review that’s coming up next month. That will define those sorts of things.”
The company announced April 26 it has completed more than 180 tests of the Space Vehicle’s biconic shape at’s High Speed Wind Tunnel Facility in Dallas, Texas. Alexander said Blue Origin engineers chose the biconic approach to add a little cross-range over a pure capsule for more landing options on reentry, without the weight penalty of a lifting body like the planned Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser or a winged vehicle like the space shuttle. The tests evaluated different versions of the basic shape, as well as trim flaps to optimize the transitions from hypersonic flight down to subsonic speeds, when parachutes would deploy for the final touchdown.
The company also is preparing to test the thrust chamber assembly and nozzle of its BE-3 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen engine in test stand E-1 at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. Alexander says the engine is being developed in-house, as is the turbomachinery for the 100,000-lb.-thrust rocket. The company has hired a “very talented engine department,” he says, which also developed the peroxide/kerosene BE-2 engine used on a suborbital test that reached 45,000 ft. and Mach 1.2 before it was destroyed over West Texas by range safety officers when it developed flight instability.
The BE-3 will power the reusable first stage of the two-stage rocket the company plans as the ultimate launch vehicle for the Space Vehicle. The upper stage would be a throwaway, while the first stage would return to Earth in a powered vertical landing, Alexander says.