Is Blue Origin making the 737 of spaceflight?

By Dan Catchpole


This article has been updated to correct an error that misstated the relative size of New Glenn’s payload.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith at the AFA 2018 summit. (Photo by Dan Catchpole)

October 11, 2018, © Leeham News: Wednesday’s announcement that the U.S. Air Force had selected Blue Origin along with Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance to develop launch system prototypes was welcomed news for the Jeff Bezos-backed company. The Air Force has committed about $500 million through 2024 for Blue Origin’s contract to develop its New Glenn rocket, which will be able to haul 50-ton payloads to low Earth orbit and 13-ton loads to geosynchronous orbit.

Nonetheless, the company’s “entire fundamental business model is based around commercial launches,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said at the Aerospace Futures Alliance’s annual summit in Lynnwood, WA.

Smith said New Glenn is expected to launch in 2021. As recently as this summer, company executives had said first launch is slated for late 2020. 

Smith’s remarks came just hours before the Air Force announced the contracts, worth more than $2 billion between the three companies. (The USAF has committed $792 million for Northrop Grumman and $967 million for ULA.)

Long term, Blue Origin sees a bigger market on the commercial side, though. It aims to drive down the cost of spaceflight, which will create new and wider demand, Smith said.

For now, the company is counting on space tourism to help it get there. It plans to fly its New Shepard in suborbital space in the first half of 2019. The capsule has room for six passengers.

What precisely comes after space tourism?

“My short answer is: I don’t know,” Smith said.

The longer answer–the company hopes–is that if spaceflight costs come down, that will be spur innovation and new demand.

“Throughout my career in the space industry, there have been all kind of business plans that have been on the shelf, and the reason they’re on the shelf is because literally they can’t get the business case to close because access to space is too costly,” he said.

Already, the company has received inquiries from colleges and even high schools about putting payloads on their New Shepard.

“We’re getting this very good validation that if you lower the cost of access to space you get the ability to actually go drive demand, get new demand,” Smith said.

Lowering the cost

In some respects, Blue Origin aims to develop the 737s of space travel—low operating costs, reliable performance, and quick turnaround times. Put another way, the company wants the New Glenn to be a rocket that can be flown often, at full load capacity, and with (relatively) cheap operating costs.

The company is developing reusable multistage rockets capable of launching and landing in all but severe weather and requiring as little service between flights as possible. “We want to fly it as often as possible,” he said.

Blue Origin’s second platform, the New Glenn, will be the second largest spacecraft by payload once it flies. To cut down service costs and time between flights, it will have a single configuration for payloads, Smith said.

It also will have a reusable first stage, which accounts for about 75 percent of the total vehicle’s cost, he said.

SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy has a significantly larger payload capacity: 70 tons for low-Earth orbit and 29 tons for geosychronous orbit. SpaceX, which is backed by Elon Musk, successfully launched Falcon Heavy in February, when it put Musk’s personal Tesla Roadster into an elliptical orbit around the sun. The car currently is slightly past Mars’ orbit, traveling at 39,505 mph, according to the website Where Is Roadster?

Blue Origin plans to fly New Glenn in 2021, Smith said during the conference.

As recently as July, a company executive told attendees at the 2018 APSAT Conference that first launch was scheduled for late 2020, Space News reported at the time.

In August, Reuters reported that the launch date could slip.

Growing company

Blue Origin is rapidly expanding to keep up with its long to-do list.

Currently, the company has about 1,500 employees. “Keep a close eye on that” number, because it will start rising, Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of work on our hands.”

The vast majority—about 80 percent—of the company’s employees is based in Kent, WA, just south of Seattle. It also is expanding a manufacturing facility at Cape Canaveral, where its launch facility is, and it is opening a plant near Decatur, AL, to produce its BE-4 engine for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

“Our design and engineering will be here in Washington,” as well as a significant amount of its light manufacturing, Smith said.

The business environment in Washington “can always be better. We’d be remiss if we didn’t say that we’d like it to be better,” Smith said. “But that’s not an impediment” in the company’s decision to site work.

The New Glenn rockets will have to be assembled in Florida next to the launch site. At least 283 feet tall, the rockets are too large to be assembled anywhere else, he said.

Likewise, the Decatur plant will produce BE-4 engines for ULA, whose plant is nearby.

One of the largest challenges remaining is getting the supply chain to expand to the capacity Blue Origin needs “in a very short time,” Smith said.

29 Comments on “Is Blue Origin making the 737 of spaceflight?

  1. If we are at the stage of creating the 737 of rockets, what was the DC-3?

    • I think the space shuttle was supposed to be the DC3, but wasnt really.

      I would make the Boeing 247 , a few years before the Dc3 as the true originator of modern airliners.
      And I would put the Junker F.13 , the first all metal stressed skin transport aircraft- with 4 passengers as the start point.
      I would put Blue Origin at the F.13 stage.

  2. Betteridge’s law of headlines is an adage that states: “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”

    You say “Blue Origin aims to develop the 737s of space travel—low cost, reliable, and quick turnaround times.” But New Glenn is still a paper rocket.
    SpaceX has recovered one of its first stage boosters 30 times, a tally which includes 18 landings on drone ships at sea, 11 returns to Cape Canaveral, and now one landing at at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The last Block 5 was reflown after less than two months after its previous flight. SpaceX’s stated goal is for a 24 hr turn around.

    You also say that “ Blue Origin’s second platform, the New Glenn, will be the largest spacecraft once it flies. Its payload will be twice the size of the next largest launch system. The company plans to fly it in 2021.” This is wrong as Falcon Heavy has already flown and can launch 63,000kg to LEO where the New Glenn (if and when it ever launches) will only carry 45,000kg to LEO.

    SpaceX is also developing the 747 of rockets with its next generation BFR. It will carry 100,000kgs to LEO and will be capable with refueling to landing 100 tons on Mars or the Moon. It will be completely reusable and its low costs will open up a new golden age of space flight. There are also plans for earth to earth passenger service that will fly anywhere in 30 minutes. Test flights to start in 2019.

    It is one thing to write a puff piece but at least get your facts right.

    • Thanks for Enlightening these Amateur Reporters and Telling the Truth to the Public ……

      • Construction of the prototype is well underway.

        If BFR is a fantasy, so is New Glenn.

      • the mars part is pretty optimistic, but I have no doubt that the BFR (cargo model) will be flying within 5 years and likely before New Glenn.

    • Thank you for bringing my error to my attention. I have corrected it, and apologize for my mistake.

      That’s a fair point about questions in headlines. Most LNC readers are much more familiar with commercial aviation than spaceflight. I was trying to frame Smith’s comments in a way that resonated with their frame of reference.

      • I do both.

        Just not into one side rah rah.

        Space X has had its own share of problems, but its got viable flying birds.

        The BFR is likely a pipe dream as is mars.

        While no one is talking, I suspect Falcon Heavy can have boosters added and get more out of it.

        Vulcan is the next big interesting rocket, its taking a parachute the engines back to earth approach (via a heat shield protection from orbit)

        That is an interesting trade off vs where Falcon can’t always get the engines back vs a heat shield parachute system that always does (though actually capturing them will have failures)

  3. I see Space X with a good combo rocket in the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy (and it works)

    I see the ILA putting the Vulcan into production (with a Blue Origin rocket ala methane)

    Not sure I see the BFR any time soon.

    I would say Space X has the 737 spot well in hand.

      • Yea but the 737 was there first, from a short range workhorse the the phenomena it is today (phenomenal that its still flying just a bit modified (grin)

        As for Mars? Who cares. Ain;’t happening, no money in it.

  4. has BO even gotten _anything_ to orbit yet? I believe the answer to that is no and so I think the odds of having New Glenn operational before 2023 is a huge stretch.

    sorry, My money is on SpaceX who have actually already reused first stage boosters 8 or 9 times, have (successfully) landed 30, are already able to put more payload to LEO than new Glenn and have the BFR coming down the pipe.

    Elon Musk may be a nutter, but he actually delivers product.

      • Don’t forget Tesla (making cars at rate now) and one into a trans something orbit.

        Blue Origin? Their motor is way late.

        Elton is a nut case, but an interesting one.

  5. Bezos needs to get better operational quality than his Amazon shopping site, still problems including improper packaging for shipment damage in last two, profligacy in some earlier.

    BTW, what does ‘New Glenn’ stand for?

    • It’s a hat tip to astronaut John Glenn. Blue Origin’s first rocket, New Shepard, is in honor of Alan Shepard, the first American in space. Like the real Shepard’s first flight, the New Shepard is a suborbital craft. Both Shepard and Glenn were among the Mercury Seven, America’s first astronauts.

      • BO has also named the design coming after New Glenn as the New Armstrong.

  6. So many “paper” aircraft and spacecraft have either not come to fruition or offered far less performance than claimed (hoped) or cost way more or all of the above. My guess is that the turn around time and cost will both disappoint. Using liquefied methane rather than kerosene should make it able to launch a higher percentage of its gross mass into orbit but will have other issues/costs associated with it. And just think of the CO2 per passenger using one of these as a hypersonic transport; not a good idea.

    Certainly Mr. Bezos has the money if anyone does.

    • Bezos is asset rich and cash poor , as Amazon for its entire existence has earnings that Exxon Mobil would make in less than a month. Never paid a dividend either.

  7. “just think of the CO2 per passenger using one of these as a hypersonic transport; not a good idea.”

    Actually Methane (CH4) is an environmentally friendly fuel. Compared to other hydrocarbon fuels, methane produces less carbon dioxide for each unit of heat released. You can produce Methane and liquid oxygen from water and atmospheric CO2 using solar power so it is environmentally neutral.

    I would not bet against Elon Musk and the BFR is not science fiction. Major components are already under production at the new BFR factory in LA.

    • The issue with the BFR is not that it can’t be made, its what will it be used for?

      Even the latest iteration is a bit payload that precludes most satellites. Do you need that much lift to the Space Station supply?

      And its going to take 10 years minimum to get it certified for money making missions.

      There is no money to be made going to Mars. There is lots of money for satellite launches and Space Station supply.

      Suddenly with Russian standing down with the Soyuz launch failure there may be incentive to move faster on the manned part (though the Station can be supplied until people can be relieved)

      NRC loads go on Falcon Heavy or the still operate ULA (Deltas or Atlas (going away)

  8. “The issue with the BFR is not that it can’t be made, its what will it be used for?”

    Elon Musk already has more money than he needs. He has stated that half his money will go towards funding a colony on Mars.

    That being said, SpaceX is going to make tons of money off the BFR. It will be completely reusable so no more throwing away the whole spacecraft after one use. SpaceX plans to replace the Falcon 9 and Heavy with BFR as its costs are only fuel. It will pay for its self by just launch the 5,000 Starlink satellites.

    It already has its first paying flight booked for around the moon. I can see a market foe space tourism, establishing a moon colony as well as asteroid mining. Eventually, once it builds up a safety record, I can see thousands of BFRs flying passengers on the long haul flights. London to Singapore in 30 minutes vice 19 hours would be a compelling business case alone especially if they can do 3 or 4 flights a day.

    We will have to see how long it takes but its revenue generating potential is unlimited.

    • Methinks someone has gotten a bit too much of a whiff of Methane.

      BFR is simply too big for many payloads.

      Elton may have a lot of money but spaces eats up money rapidly, I don’t think he has that much money.

      I don’t see how lobbing rockets to Singapore makes any sense at all.

      It all has to pay out in the end and like the super rail thing, I just do not see it.

      • “BFR is simply too big for many payloads. ”

        The BFR will be completely reusable which means its cost per flight is less than $1M compared to a Falcon 9 which throws away its $20M second stage or the $1B per flight SLS which is completely expendable.

        The BFR is big. In fact it has more pressurized internal volume than an A-380. It could carry 500 pax anywhere in the world in 30 minutes. No need for pilots, meals or flight attendants so a ticket would be equivalent to the current business class fare. Don’t think of it as a rocket but more as a hyper-sonic passenger transport.

        It can also carry more cargo than an C5 – Galaxy and the military has already expressed interest.

        Complete reusabilty makes it a game changer and should be very profitable while driving down the costs of space access.

  9. I think spaceflight will be very interesting. The experience to feel zero gravity is priceless. It would also open the possibility of traveling to other planets.

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