Blue Origin’s older than SpaceX in more ways than one
April 14, 2017
PARIS — Not-so-startup launch service provider and rocket-engine builder Blue Origin now counts more than 1,000 employees, of which 30 percent have more than 20 years’ experience in the aerospace industry and another 30 percent have 10 or more years’ experience, Blue Origin Sales and Marketing Vice President Clay Mowry said.
The company, which has emerged from its self-imposed silence only in the past year, was founded in 2000, making it about two years older than competitor SpaceX. Since then has been developing rocket propulsion systems and full launch vehicles from its Kent, Washington, headquarters.
Addressing the International Astronautical Federation (IAF) Spring Meeting on March 22, Mowry said Blue Origin’s annual turnover rate is under 4 percent. In yet another contrast to Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, Mowry said Blue Origin has hired massively from established aerospace companies.
SpaceX continues to grow and now has about 6,000 employees, company President Gwynne Shotwell said April 6 during a presentation to the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The company is known for hiring younger engineers.
Mowry’s remarks preceded by two weeks a press briefing at symposium by Blue Origin’s founder and paymaster, Jeff Bezos, and provided a ground-view supplement to Bezos’s broader vision:
$250-million Florida factory set for completion by December
Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket is scheduled to make its inaugural flight in late 2020. The main production factory — a $250-million, 750,000-square-foot (69,677-square-meter) facility in Exploration Park, Florida — is under construction and scheduled for completion by the end of this year.
New Glenn’s two-stage version — seven BE-4 LOx/methane engines on the first stage, and one on the second stage — is designed to carry up to 13,000 kilograms of payload into geostationary transfer orbit, where most large telecommunications satellite operate; and 45,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.
The rocket has a 5.4-meter-diameter fairing and Blue Origin is designing a 7-meter-diameter version, he said.
Mowry said one of the reasons for the choice of methane, aside from its cleanliness, is its low cost — between one-quarter and one-third the cost of RP-1, which is refined kerosene.
While propellant is not a major factor in launch-vehicle cost, Blue Origin’s planned high launch rate argues for even small per-launch cost savings.
The New Glenn facility, operating from the Launch Complex 36 launch pad formerly used by the U.S. Atlas rocket, is designed to launch 12 times per year, with a surge capacity to conduct two missions in one month.
Mowry said it would take perhaps three years from the inaugural flight to reach that flight rate.
Customers’ satellites are encapsulated vertically and then mated to the rocket horizontally, similar to long-standing Russian practice and also the way launch-service provider SpaceX operates.
Mowry declined to discuss pricing, although the company has signed its first two customers. Paris-based geostationary satellite-fleet operator Eutelsat has contracted for a launch of a yet-unidentified satellite; and OneWeb, designing a constellation of low-orbiting satellites for Internet delivery, has booked five launches.
“We intend to be market leading in terms of cost per kilogram” to orbit, Mowry said.
Awaiting engine order from United Launch Alliance
Blue Origin is expected to be selected by United Launch Alliance, which is the U.S. government’s primary launch-service provider, to provide the BE-4 engine (550,000 pounds of thrust) for ULA’s future Vulcan rocket.
It’s the same engine that will power New Glenn, whose first stage is designed to be reused up to 100 times, although Blue Origin has no intention to push it that far.
Manufacturing engines for its own use and that of ULA lowers unit cost and ultimately reduces the production-volume penalty that is part of the equation for hardware being reused several times.
Blue Origin’s approach to the U.S. government market, and whether the company would sign a noncompete clause with ULA in return for a large BE-4 engine supply contract, remains unclear.
Peter B. de Selding