Blue Origin: Quiet Plans for Spaceships
Blue Origin is a company working on cone-like space vehicle intended to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
The firm, which has funding from Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, is not only developing a biconic space vehicle, but is also working on a reusable rocket booster that can head back to its landing site autonomously.
NASA has provided Blue Origin with more than $25 million in contracts for the Commercial Crew Development program, which is working to develop privately funded space vehicles to bring people to the International Space Station.
The Kent, Wa.-based firm has revealed little about its work, with much of the information coming to the public through mandatory disclosures as it pursues government work.
But beginning in 2012, as the company passed some of its initial funding milestones, officials were more forthcoming with design plans.
Blue Origin was registered as a company in 2000, and first made it into public attention in 2006 after Bezos made a series of land purchases in Texas.
According to the Wall Street Journal, these purchases were made under names such as "James Cook L.P.," "Jolliet Holdings," "Coronado Ventures," and "Cabot Enterprises", which all traced back to the same address. The corporate names, incidentally, all were based on famous explorers.
In January 2007, according to MSNBC, Blue Origin's website opened for business, featuring videos and photos from such milestones such as a November 2006 test flight.
Blue Origin received two rounds of funding from NASA: $3.7 million in 2010 for the first round of the Commercial Crew Program, and $22 million for the second round in 2011.
The company's most major disclosed setback came in 2011, when it lost a development vehicle around 45,000 feet during a flight test.
"A flight instability drove an angle of attack that triggered our range safety system to terminate thrust on the vehicle. Not the outcome any of us wanted, but we're signed up for this to be hard," wrote Bezos in a Sept. 2, 2011, update to the company's website.
He added that the company was already working on another development vehicle. The next "short hop" took place in November that year.
October 2012 saw tests of the crew capsule escape system; the company dubbed the event "a great day in Texas" on its website. The system soared to 2,307 feet (703 meters) before returning by parachute.
"The progress Blue Origin has made on its suborbital and orbital capabilities really is encouraging for the overall future of human spaceflight," NASA Commercial Crew Program manager Ed Mango said in a statement. "It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight."
Aiming for suborbital and orbital space
The company is developing separate systems to bring astronauts into space – one for short-term hops, and the other to reach higher and put the spacecraft in orbit around the Earth.
New Shepard, which the company describes as an "early prototype" vehicle, will bring three or more people into space from a launch site in Texas, according to the company's website.
The spacecraft and a propulsion module will rocket together for about 2.5 minutes before separation. As the propulsion module comes back for an autonomous landing, the spacecraft will make a quick trip to space's edge before returning for a parachute landing.
Blue Origin is aiming to attract high-flying customers for joyrides as well as for research opportunities, since this would provide an opportunity for short microgravity experiments.
"We're beginning with suborbital as a means to gain that experience, gain that practice that'll lead on to orbital human spaceflight," said Rob Meyerson, the company's president and program manager, in a public talk in 2011.
The company's orbital system would work similarly, with a biconic spacecraft attached to a reusable first stage. Bringing that first stage to flight again and again will save on money and complication, according to Blue Origin.
"Conventional first stage booster rockets are expendable," the company wrote on its website.
"This conventional approach has two major drawbacks. The lack of flight testing prior to first use makes reliability a challenge. The fact that each mammoth vehicle is thrown away after a single use contributes to the staggering cost of spaceflight."
Cone of silence
Blue Origin officials stand apart from some of the more colorful personalities found in other space development companies.
Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson is well-known for his stunts (including once driving a tank through New York City.) Elon Musk, from Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), has spoken at conferences of his dream of Mars exploration.
While these firms had reams of information available on their websites, Blue Origin was slower in releasing information publicly. It wasn't until early January 2013, for example, that the company began running an active Twitter account.
In a 2012 SPACE.com interview, Blue Origin's Brett Alexander said the company preferred to trumpet its accomplishments rather than its plans, so as not to set any false expectations.
"We don't want to get off-focus," added Alexander, Blue Origin's director of business development and strategy.
"We're a very intense engineering, technical company. We don't have a lot of accountants for contracts ... and the more time we spend talking about things, there's less time we spend doing things."
The company, however, has been much more forthcoming with information starting in 2012. Also, the firm was in a midst of a hiring spree when 2013 began, with nearly 20 jobs available on its website.
"Blue Origin ... is developing technologies to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability," the company stated on its website. "This is a long-term effort, which we’re pursuing incrementally, step by step."
— Elizabeth Howell, SPACE.com Contributor