Jeff Bezos has moved Blue Origin out of semi-stealth mode.
For almost four hours, Mr. Bezos, who only occasionally talks to the press, led 11 reporters on a tour of the factory and answered a litany of questions over lunch.
The reusable New Shepard spacecraft that launched to the outskirts of space in November and then made a return trip in January will launch again soon. Depending on how well the testing goes, paying tourists, six at a time, might start making the short trips, experiencing a few minutes of weightlessness in space as soon as 2018, he said.
About 600 people work at Blue Origin, most at the Kent headquarters with a small number at its test-launch site near Van Horn, Texas.
Bezos said that will rise to 1,000 within the next year and later to 1,200 as the company ramps up its engineering and manufacturing.
He let his engineers make their presentations about a new engine, the BE-4, which is under development with tests of a full version beginning by the end of the year.
BE-4 is an engine that is scheduled to fly by 2019, meeting the congressionally mandated deadline to eliminate dependence on Russian-built engines. The alternative engine option is multiple years behind and could not be integrated into a launch vehicle until at least 2021, extending our dependence on Russian engines well beyond 2019.
The BE-4 will power NASA’s next-generation launch vehicle, the Vulcan rocket built by United Launch Alliance — the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Blue Origin will also use the BE-4 to power its own series of orbital rockets — much larger than New Shepard and, for now, nameless, though dubbed internally the “Very Big Brother” rockets. Those will be built and launched at Cape Canaveral, Fla., then land on platforms in the Atlantic Ocean.
Blue Origin expects to ramp up to building a dozen BE-4 engines a year in Kent, but it will need much higher production rates if NASA’s Vulcan and its own orbital rockets proceed as planned.
The company is actively searching for a site to build a large BE-4 production plant.
Much of the serious engineering in Kent is now devoted to the BE-4 engine.
In that engine’s core, where temperatures reach 5,000 degrees, liquid fuel circulates in carefully machined channels to prevent a meltdown.
On Tuesday, engineers in a small operations center monitored video from Texas of a test stand where BE-4 engine components are being tested this week.
Like Elon Musk, Bezos talks about Blue Origin less as a business than as part of a glorious future for humanity, with millions of people living and working off the planet. It is also a path, he asserted, that humanity must pursue if it is to continue to prosper.
His argument was simple: Energy consumption has been rising at 2 or 3 percent a year. Even at that modest rate, within a few centuries, the energy usage would be equal to the energy produced by high-efficiency solar cells covering the entire surface of the planet. “We’ll be using all of the solar energy that impacts the Earth,” he said. “That’s an actual limit.”
But there is much energy and raw materials to use elsewhere in the solar system, and eventually, he prophesies, there will be the “great inversion.” Instead of factories on Earth manufacturing sophisticated components that go into tiny machines that go into space, the heavy manufacturing will all be done elsewhere, and Earth, he joked, would be zoned for residential and light industrial use, allowing much of Earth to return to a more natural state. “It’ll be universities and houses and so on,” he said.
That is still far in the future. For now, Blue Origin’s business plans fall in three categories. The first is space tourism, with short hops launching from West Texas on the New Shepard, a competitor to Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson’s space start-up. Space tourism is not just a frivolity for the rich, but a necessary steppingstone to develop the expertise in a new technology, Mr. Bezos said, much like the early days of airplanes or how video games spurred the development of more powerful computer chips.
Currently, most rocket companies launch, at most, about a dozen times a year. “You never get really great at something you do 10, 12 times a year,” Mr. Bezos said. With a small fleet of reusable New Shepard rockets, Blue Origin could be launching dozens of times a year.
The other business plans are for selling its rocket engines to other companies like United Launch Alliance, which is planning to use them for the Vulcan, a next-generation rocket to replace the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, and for its own larger rocket to lift payloads to orbit.
SOURCES - Seattle Times, NY Times, Blue Origin