The long delay can be due to a decision Jeff Bezos took years ago.
In the fall of 2017, immediately after becoming CEO of Blue Origin, Bob Smith got a huge briefing on the state of the New Glenn rocket program. The scheduled launch date for the extensive, reusable rocket was 2020.
As Smith evaluated the progress on New Glenn to date and drew upon his long tenure at Honeywell Aerospace, he soon realized that this launch date was unreasonable. Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was not present for this, but later on, his reaction was that he won’t at all accept any changes to the launch date for the huge orbital rocket. Blue Origin should be optimistic with its projections, according to Bezos and they must meet those projections.
Bezos’ rocket company, however, could not meet those projections. Not only did New Glenn not launch in 2020, last week Blue Origin announced that it would not launch until the fourth quarter of 2022, at the earliest. Blue Origin even did not take much blame for the rocket’s delay. Rather, the company blamed the delay mostly on a possible customer, the US Department of Defense.
Blue Origin’s New Glenn project is quite ambitious. If successfully evolved, it would provide an unconventional heavy-lift service to low Earth orbit, geostationary space, and even the Moon.
A crucial decision
As part of his overall space plan, Bezos is contemplating to build a large, reusable orbital rocket for a long time. Step one was to learn how to reuse rockets with the much smaller New Shepard launch system, which features a single-engine booster and capsule. The company’s engineers have made New Shepard successfully complete over a dozen suborbital missions with picture-perfect rocket landings over the last five years.
However, much before New Shepard took its first flight, Bezos was already deep into scheduling his next rocket. During a meeting in December 2011 with then-NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver, Bezos discussed an orbital rocket capable to challenge SpaceX’s Falcon 9 booster.
The big rocket, which could attain fame as New Glenn more than half a decade later, was not quite so large as New Glenn is visualized today. Instead of being equipped by seven BE-4 engines and elevated almost as tall as NASA’s famed Saturn V rocket, Bezos actually pictured a more modest-sized rocket comparable to the Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance’s single-stick Delta IV. In some repetitions, New Glenn had just three main engines.
This would have been a more accumulative step for a launch company that is yet to put a gram of material into orbit. Rather, instead of providing a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos finally chose to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version.
Rather than crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to start sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of developing such a large rocket are big enough. As New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company must recover it from the beginning. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers may bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.
The decision to leap the walking part of the company’s growth has cost Blue Origin dearly, according to sources. The company’s engineering teams, comprised of smart and talented people, are struggling with tough technical challenges. Many lessons can be learned from New Shepard, the smaller rocket features 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have almost 4 million.
Blue Origin is now juggling a number of other crucial projects apart from New Glenn. There is an ongoing endeavour to put humans onto suborbital New Shepard flights, which may happen as soon as late spring or early summer. This has been a long slog, as Bezos once recommended humans may fly on the suborbital launch system as soon as 2017.
There is work on the BE-4 engine only, which will ultimately strengthen New Glenn. As part of its development process, Blue Origin engineers pushed through crucial turbopump issues. Technicians and engineers are working hard to offer flight-ready BE-4 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, an important customer, by this summer. This is probably Blue Origin’s most immediate priority.
Blue Origin is also heading the “National Team,” comprising of industry heavyweights like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, which seeks to build a lander for human missions to the Moon. This is a heated, high-profile competition with two other bidders, SpaceX and a Dynetics-led team, and the prize is billions of dollars in contracts and high status in carrying astronauts down to the surface of the Moon. NASA can pick one or two finalists in April to move forward. Bezos desperately wants to prevail here.
So, New Glenn has taken a back seat. The vehicle’s delay to the fourth quarter of 2022 comes down to a combination of two things. First, there is a massive engineering challenge, which is due to Bezos’ resolution to choose a larger New Glenn design. Secondly, Blue Origin has higher priorities at the moment.
Bezos’ vision is captivating. Recently, he decided to step away from Amazon, which will give him more time to work on Blue Origin and perhaps let him bring this vision into better focus.