In May 2019, Blue Origin unveiled plans to build and launch “Blue Moon” lunar landers. Five months later, founder Jeff Bezos has announced a proposal for NASA’s Artemis Moon lander program that would augment Blue Moon with hardware from aerospace stalwarts Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to land astronauts on the Moon in the 2020s.
On top of that, Bezos also revealed the first unequivocal confirmation that Blue Origin has begun building full-scale prototype hardware for its ambitious New Glenn orbital launch vehicle – in this case, half of a massive carbon fiber payload fairing.
In a press release posted to the company’s website, Blue Origin’s Chief Executive Officer, Bob Smith, stated that “national challenges call for a national response. We are humbled and inspired to lead this deeply committed team that will land NASA astronauts on the Moon.” The national team will be managed with Blue Origin as the principal contractor and “[combine] our partners’ heritage with our advance work on the Blue Moon lunar lander and its BE-7 engine.”
Solving the lunar landing equation
Each company was selected based on a demonstrated area of expertise that solves a very specific piece of the equation that is landing astronauts on the moon. Blue Origin will serve as the primary contractor leading mission engineering and assurance, as well as providing the lunar Descent Element, Blue Moon. Lockheed Martin will provide the reusable Ascent Element vehicle and lead the operations and flight training of the crew, while Northrop Grumman provides the Transfer Element vehicle to deliver Blue Moon to the lunar surface.
Draper’s contribution is integral to mission success. It will provide a navigation system “designed to give crewed missions precise location and navigation data needed for safe and accurate lunar and planetary landings” as outlined in a NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate statement earlier this month. The Draper navigation system is expected to debut during a launch of Blue Origin’s suborbital rocket, New Shepard as proof of concept by year’s end.
Debuting super-heavy rocket hardware
During his IAC presentation, Bezos revealed a video of what is almost certainly the first full-scale prototype hardware of Blue Origin’s reusable New Glenn rocket. In the clip, a massive carbon-composite payload fairing half is moved inside an even larger curing oven located on Blue Origin’s Cape Canaveral, FL campus, offering an incredibly rare glimpse inside the company’s purported New Glenn factory.
New Glenn’s payload fairing will measure 7m (23 ft) wide and roughly 22m (72 ft) tall, dwarfing the 5ish-meter options currently used by SpaceX and ULA. As of now, New Glenn’s payload fairing will be the largest expendable fairing on Earth when it debuts in 2021 or 2022.
Aside from a Blue Moon lander mockup, Blue Origin also brought an entire BE-4 engine to IAC 2019. Seven BE-4s will power New Glenn’s reusable first stage and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) has also selected BE-4 to power its Vulcan booster. Capable of producing roughly 550,000 lbf (2400 kN) of thrust, Blue Origin is slowly but surely qualifying BE-4 for flight and recently began its first full-thrust static fires at the company’s Van Horn, Texas test facilities.
While Bezos’s presentation provided the briefest of views inside Blue Origin’s rocket factory, Space Coast local Julia Bergeron posted a photo on Twitter showing an impressive fleet of cranes hard at work building Blue Origin’s LC-36 New Glenn launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Blue Origin is notoriously hesitant to share much of anything about its next-generation New Glenn rocket, so it’s a pleasant surprise to receive even the briefest of glimpses behind the scenes. Combined with Blue’s undeniable rocket propulsion expertise and shrewdly political (albeit unsavory) approach to industry collaboration, the company is clearly here to stay and is certainly doing everything it can to give NASA an offer it simply can’t refuse.
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