New Glenn Rolls To Launchpad For Tanking Test

view of blue orgin's new glenn pathfinder being rolled out
Credit: Blue Origin

CAPE CANAVERAL—A New Glenn test vehicle was rolled out from Blue Origin’s Integrated Test Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station (CCSFS) on Feb. 21 for a launchpad tanking test, a key milestone as the Jeff Bezos-owned space company prepares for its first orbital launch this year.

Supported in its Transporter Erector (TE), the fully stacked 320-ft.-tall vehicle left the company’s Integration Facility at Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36) at 9:25 a.m. EST Feb. 21 and headed to the launchpad.

“We can do a rollout, upend and launch in a very short period of time,” Allison Caron, senior director for launch facility development, told Aerospace DAILY during a Jan. 30 facility tour.

The TE has four hinges that connect to the pad’s upending system and collars that connect to the launch table. A four-panel auto coupler will make automatic connections with the pad’s ground systems. Blue Origin practiced the vertical pivot at SLC-36 with its New Glenn simulator on Feb. 13 and removed it the following day.

This time, the test vehicle will remain at the pad for several days for an integrated tanking test (ITT). The first stage is flight hardware that will be used on a future mission. For the ITT, the booster will be filled with liquid nitrogen, rather than the liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas, a commercial form of methane, that will power the booster’s seven BE-4 engines during launch.

The ITT vehicle’s first stage does not include engines, as they were not needed for the test, said Jarrett Jones, senior vice president for New Glenn. “We made the decision to not put the engines on because it’s not part of the test,” he told Aerospace DAILY. “We’ll fill the tank up, make sure everything works with the fluids systems. It’s an integrated vehicle test, but it’s not firing the engines.”

Following the ITT, the first stage will be outfitted with an aft structure and the BE-4 engines, mated with a new upper stage and then returned to the launchpad this summer for a hot fire. Jones expects to be ready to launch the first New Glenn vehicle shortly thereafter. Engines for the hot fire are completing qualification testing at Blue’s West Texas facility.

The company’s first two BE-4s have already flown: United Launch Alliance is buying engines from Blue for its Vulcan rocket, which made a successful debut on Jan. 8.

“There are some deltas between the two that flew on Vulcan and ours that we are qualifying,” Jones said. “That will be done very soon ... I won’t be waiting on engines.”

The second stage being used for the ITT will not be fueled, though it was used for a tanking test last year. It is not flight hardware.

The ITT vehicle also includes a New Glenn 22-ft.-dia. payload shroud that holds a dummy payload.

The tanking test will be overseen by the Blue Origin launch team working from a new control center in the 650,000-sq.-ft. production complex located about 9 mi. away from LC-36 at the Exploration Park industrial center next to Kennedy Space Center.

Blue Origin is completing work on its fourth New Glenn first stage, a reusable system that will land on a barge stationed about 620 mi. downrange in the Atlantic Ocean. The company in 2022 scrapped plans to use a recovery ship as the New Glenn landing platform. “This is easier to operate and this is all about costs for us and lowering the cost of access to space. The barge was along the line of doing that,” Jones said.

“The landing barge will be ready soon,” he added.

Building on experience operating its reusable New Shepard suborbital launch system, Blue plans to land its New Glenn rockets beginning with the first flight. “That sounds aggressive, but it’s not,” Jones said. “Think about how many times we’ve landed New Shepard right on the dime. All of the avionics systems, flight systems and everything that we’ve learned, we’ve  transferred over—even the people have all come to work for New Glenn—and so I feel pretty confident.”

The New Glenn fleet will initially consist of four first stages, all of which are in production. Blue is building a booster refurbishment facility about 1 mi. away from LC-36 on Central Control Road. Early booster refurbishment will take place at the SLC-36 Integration Facility.

Turnaround time between flights of the first stages is targeted for 30 days.

“We’ve designed and planned everything to fly within 30 days, but obviously we’ll have to wait for the first flight to determine how quickly we turn around,” Jones said. “From the landing, to the gears and the avionics, the total system has been purpose-built for reusability.” 

New Glenn will begin operations with expendable upper stages. Three second stages have been completed and three more are in production at the company’s Florida manufacturing facility. The 22-ft.-dia. payload fairings are also produced in-house and are also expendable.

Fairings for the first seven-eight New Glenn missions were finished when Aerospace DAILY visited the Blue Origin manufacturing complex and launchpad, according to Henri Fuhrmann, vice president for New Glenn upper stage systems.

“We are really gaining the bucks on cost reduction by being able to produce second stages and fairings [in-house], but that’s why we’re always looking at engineering ways to not have to expend those things as well,” Jones said.

Blue has the capability to launch 12 times a year from the start. “In reality, we can easily double that,” Jones said. “We’re bringing in equipment to get to 24 launches a year and we can do more.”

Bezos has invested more than $3 billion for Blue Origin facilities and infrastructure, including $1 billion to rebuild SLC-36, which was last used for a Lockheed Martin Atlas III launch in February 2005.

“We’re launching this year. It’s happening,” Jones said. “Our plan is to launch twice this year.”

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.