Blue Origin, the commercial space company bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, plans to begin unmanned orbital flight tests of its biconic-shape human capsule in 2018. Ultimately, the company will use an orbital launch vehicle powered at least in part by a clean-sheet cryogenic engine it now has demonstrated can support suborbital human spaceflight.

Initial flights of the seven-seat orbital human vehicle—so far known only as “Space Vehicle”—are scheduled to go on the Atlas V, which has also been the choice of other companies vying for a NASA contract to transport crews to the International Space Station. By then, Blue Origin also plans to have “astronaut passengers” flying suborbital missions in its New Shepard capsule as it builds toward a commercial operation that will provide suborbital and orbital human spaceflight to a variety of private and government customers, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and other military organizations.

Longer term, though, Blue Origin expects to use a launcher of its own design for orbital human missions, with at least the upper stage powered by a variant of its BE-3 liquid-oxygen/liquid-hydrogen rocket engine. The characteristically secretive Kent, Wash.-based startup unveiled new details about the BE-3 Dec. 3 in a rare and unusually informative question-and-answer session with Rob Meyerson, president and program manager. The 110,000-lb.-thrust rocket engine completed a mission-duty cycle test at Blue Origin's isolated West Texas facility, simulating operations during a manned suborbital flight of its New Shepard composite capsule.

In the test, the engine ran for 145 sec. at full throttle, then shut down for 4.5 min. to simulate the coasting phase that will take New Shepard out of the atmosphere. This was followed by a restart and throttle-down to the 25,000-lb.-thrust level it will need to bring the reusable booster back to Earth for a tail-down landing while the capsule parachutes home.

“We have been focused on the suborbital mission as the starting point to serve as practice for later development of our orbital launch system. That way, we intend to prove out underlying technologies while building out a very small and innovative company capable of repeated successes,” Meyerson says.

Work building up to the full-cycle BE-3 test in November was conducted over nine months and included 160 starts and 9,100 sec. of engine operation. “That equates to a test every two days, and sometimes actually three or four tests per day,” says Meyerson.

The work forms part of an unfunded extension of Blue Origin's Commercial Crew Development Round 2 (CCDev-2) contract with NASA, and builds on tests of the BE-3 thrust chamber conducted under an earlier funded phase of CCDev-2 at the space agency's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in 2012. Those tests “allowed us to accelerate the program by about one year,” he adds.

Since then, the company has worked with NASA under an unfunded Space Act agreement that allows it to draw on the agency's expertise and test facilities. The next major milestones include a review of the subscale propulsion tank assembly later this month, and a full space vehicle subsystem interim design review in March 2014. Blue Origin is scheduled to present its final CCDev-2 briefing to NASA in May 2014.

The BE-3 was assembled at the Kent facility, largely from parts manufactured there. The design is based on the combustion “tap-off” engine cycle, sometimes known as the “topping cycle” or chamber-bleed cycle, in which the combustion gases from around the walls of the main chamber are bled-off, partially cooled and used to power the engine's turbopumps.

Blue Origin says the cycle, which produces a relatively high specific impulse, is simpler than options such as pre-burning staged-combustion, and is well suited to human spaceflight because of its single combustion chamber and “graceful” shutdown mode. Despite the challenges of the cycle—including potentially complex start-up systems and high-temperature turbine-drive gases—Meyerson explains, “It is different because it only uses the one combustor, so it has a tendency to shut down rather than feed the combustion process.” Although Rocketyne developed the experimental J-2S tap-off variant of the Saturn V upper-stage J-2 engine in the 1960s, Meyerson says the BE-3 is the first engine of its type developed to fly.

The company also is focusing on development of modifications to adapt the baseline engine to the expendable upper-stage BE-3U version. “We demonstrated very high efficiencies on the core injector and that allows us to put on different nozzles, including a short design for deep throttling for landing, and a large-expansion-ratio nozzle design for the upper stage, which will give the higher performance and efficiency you need for that. But we are also looking at other things we can do in terms of expendables and lower-cost manufacturing,” he adds.

Still to be determined is the powerplant for the reusable first stage of the orbital vehicle. Meyerson says it could be a cluster of BE-3s, or something entirely different. Performance drove the decision to use hydrogen fuel in the BE-3, he says, but the company's engineers have not ruled out a different approach on the orbital first stage.

“We selected the BE-3 as our first orbital launch vehicle engine because it provides us with options to go with an all-hydrogen architecture if we choose to,” he says. “We have ideas. Some things are in development for other engines that we're developing, but we're not ready to discuss those today. Those would provide other options and other architectures.”

Overall, Blue Origin has received $25.7 million from NASA for CCDev-1 and -2 work, of which only a small portion went into the BE-3 engine, according to Meyerson. The company also developed a peroxide/kerosene BE-2 engine for early flight tests over Texas. A vehicle powered by that engine reached 45,000 ft. and Mach 1.2 before it was destroyed by range safety officers when signs of flight instability were noted (AW&ST Sept. 12, 2011, p. 39).

So far, the company has tested the Space Vehicle's biconic shape at Lockheed Martin's high-speed wind tunnel facility in Dallas to validate computational fluid dynamics models of its performance. Meyerson notes that while there is nothing particularly unusual about the manufacturing techniques that go into the BE-3, computer modeling also played an important role in the engine's development.

“One of the key things is the design process we went through using computational methods and our in-house analytical techniques to come to a turbopump design that worked, essentially, out of the box,” he says. “I think that is unique.”

Since its founding in 2000 with a staff of 10, Meyerson says, Blue Origin has grown to about 300 engineers and other specialists, and ultimately may hire another 100. Its website lists openings in guidance, navigation and control, structural engineering, mechanical systems design, fluid systems design, and avionics, among many other positions.

Meyerson declined to discuss pricing or specific schedules during his teleconference with reporters, but made clear Blue Origin has ambitious commercial plans and is in it for the long haul. The company is awaiting a Government Accountability Office decision in a dispute with competitor SpaceX over use of Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center and has a number of irons in the fire with potential government customers.

“Over the next several years you are going to see us flying our New Shepard suborbital system in a development phase, and then starting to fly astronaut passengers over the next several years,” says Meyerson.

“In parallel we'll be developing our orbital space vehicle, with first flights targeted for the 2018 timeframe. That will be developmental flights of our orbital launch vehicle. [Now] we're developing this engine for our New Shepard system and our orbital system, but we think it has applicability to both government and other commercial launch systems as well,” Meyerson concludes.