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Blue Origin: Quiet plans for spaceships

Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle lifts from the company's West Texas launch site on a suborbital test flight. Blue Origin has set July 20 for its first crewed flight, including founder Jeff Bezos and the auction winner who placed a $28 million bid.
Blue Origin's New Shepard launch vehicle lifts from the company's West Texas launch site on a suborbital test flight. Blue Origin has set July 20 for its first crewed flight, including founder Jeff Bezos and the auction winner who placed a $28 million bid. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin is a private spaceflight company started by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos in 2000. It was the first company in the world to successfully land a reusable rocket on a landing pad, a feat pulled off by the New Shepard suborbital vehicle during a test flight in November 2015 (and many times thereafter).

Blue Origin plans to take space tourists aloft using New Shepard and also aims to launch people and payloads to orbit, using a new rocket still under development called New Glenn.

Blue Origin is targeting July 20, 2021 for its first crewed New Shepard mission — a suborbital jaunt that will loft Bezos, his brother Mark, pioneering aviator Wally Funk and 18-year-old Oliver Daeman. (Daeman took the place of a still-mysterious person who paid $28 million for his or her seat in an online auction but pulled out of the July 20 flight due to scheduling conflicts, according to Blue Origin.)

Related: Blue Origin will launch billionaire Jeff Bezos into space on July 20. Here's how to watch.

Previously, NASA provided Blue Origin with more than $25 million in contracts (payment was based upon milestones completed) for the Commercial Crew Development program, which has helped develop privately funded space vehicles to bring people to the International Space Station. In 2014, NASA chose to support SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's Starliner spacecraft for those flights.

Quiet beginnings

Blue Origin is known in the space industry for not releasing much information about its flights and aspirations ahead of time, unlike companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Blue Origin was registered as a company in 2000 but didn't garner much public attention until 2006, when 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 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 first major disclosed setback came in 2011, when a development vehicle failed at around 45,000 feet (13,700 meters) in altitude 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," Bezos wrote 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 m) before returning to Earth by parachute.

Blue Origin’s pusher escape system rockets the Crew Capsule away from the launch pad, demonstrating a key safety system for both suborbital and orbital flights. Image released Oct. 22, 2012. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

"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 at the time. "It was awesome to see a spacecraft NASA played a role in developing take flight."

However, as the Commercial Crew program continued, NASA chose rival systems  —SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner — to provide crewed flights to and from the International Space Station. This left Blue Origin reliant on finding other customers to eventually support its work. One of the income streams Blue Origin is pursuing for New Shepard — which is named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard — is space tourism.

Related: Space tourism, 20 years in the making, is finally ready for launch

Here's what space tourists can expect: New Shepard will lift off using the rocket's BE-3PM engine, which will burn for about two minutes and 45 seconds. After main engine cutoff, the crew capsule will separate from the rocket. Passengers will be weightless for about four minutes, and will be able to see the Earth's curvature from an altitude of about 307,000 feet (93,573 m). The spacecraft will then re-enter the atmosphere for a safe landing on Earth, about 11 minutes after liftoff. The rocket, meanwhile, comes down for a powered, vertical landing at its designated touchdown pad.

New Shepard has undergone multiple iterations over the years, making 15 test launches to suborbital space as of mid-July 2021. Many of these flights have carried experiments for university researchers and other scientists, but none have yet been crewed.

Now, Bezos is scheduled to fly to the suborbital frontier on New Shepard on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. It will be the first crewed spaceflight for New Shepard.

Related: As space billionaires take flight, 'the right stuff' for space travel enters a new era

Jeff Bezos at the Blue Origin launch pad with a New Shepard rocket in the background. (Image credit: Blue Origin)

Reusable rocket flights

One of the frontiers of space exploration right now is creating reusable rockets. SpaceX is another company that has been working on the concept for years, but Blue Origin beat them to the punch in landing on solid ground several weeks before SpaceX.

That moment came on Nov. 23, 2015, during a New Shepard suborbital test flight. The rocket and vehicle separated as usual, but the rocket did not fall back to Earth. Instead, it moved toward a landing pad and softly touched down with the assistance of its engines.

"Rockets have always been expendable. Not anymore," stated a blog post on the company's website written by Bezos. "Now safely tucked away at our launch site in West Texas is the rarest of beasts, a used rocket. This flight validates our vehicle architecture and design."

SpaceX landed the first stage of its two-stage Falcon 9 rocket successfully on land about a month later, in December 2015. And this was a different kind of feat, for the Falcon 9 is a more powerful rocket that goes much higher — all the way to Earth orbit. 

Blue Origin followed up its world first with a reusability milestone on Jan. 22, 2016, launching the same New Shepard vehicle on another suborbital test flight. (SpaceX has since taken reuse to another level, landing Falcon 9 first stages during orbital launches 82 times and reflying used first stages 64 times as of mid-July 2021.)

Following the January 2016 mission, Bezos wrote that the company may soon have plans to share for a more powerful orbital system.

"We're already more than three years into development of our first orbital vehicle," he wrote. "Though it will be the small vehicle in our orbital family, it's still many times larger than New Shepard. I hope to share details about this first orbital vehicle this year." 

That orbital launch system is called New Glenn, which is named after Mercury astronaut John Glenn

Blue Origin will attempt to make New Glenn available for national security government missions. Most of that work is performed now by United Launch Alliance with its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, though SpaceX has recently won some of those launch contracts. Blue Origin is also developing a lander called Blue Moon, which is designed to carry people and payloads to the lunar surface.

Other activities

Blue Origin also has other aspects to its business. For example, it's an engine supplier as well.

That engine is the BE-4, which will power the New Glenn orbital rocket. In 2018, Blue Origin signed a deal to provide the BE-4 to United Launch Alliance, which will use it on the first stage of its Vulcan Centaur vehicle, the successor to the Atlas V. Vulcan Centaur is scheduled to launch for the first time in 2022, on a mission that will send Astrobotic's Peregrine lander to the moon. 

And Blue Origin has lunar ambitions of its own. The company leads "The National Team," a private group that proposed a human lander concept for use by NASA's Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration. 

In late April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX's Starship vehicle over the offerings of The National Team and a third competitor, Alabama-based company Dynetics. The National Team and Dynetics soon filed protests with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) over NASA's human landing system choice, however. The GAO will issue a decision soon; its deadline to do so is 100 days since the protests were filed.

This article was updated on July 16, 2021 by Space.com Senior Writer Michael Wall. 

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.