WASHINGTON Blue Origin expects to be ready to resume launches of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle in the coming weeks as it completes its recovery from an in-flight anomaly nine months ago.
Speaking at the Financial Times’ Investing in Space event on June 6, Blue Origin chief executive Bob Smith said the company is on the verge of resuming launches of New Shepard, pending Federal Aviation Administration approval. .
New Shepard was grounded due to a failure during a September 2021 payload-only flight designated NS-23. Blue Origin said in March that there was a structural failure in the vehicle’s BE-3PM engine nozzle caused by temperatures exceeding its design. The nozzle failure caused the crew capsules abort motor to fire, sending it to a safe parachute landing, while the propulsion module was destroyed.
We knew very soon after the event what exactly happened, Smith said, saying the company has been working with the FAA on the process by which we get back to flying.
In the company’s March announcement, Blue Origin said it plans to resume flights soon starting with a reflight of the NS-23 mission, but wasn’t more specific about the schedule. The FAA said it needed to review Blue Origins’ plans before allowing those flights to resume.
We’re now aiming the i’s and crossing the ts to overcome it, as well as getting our system ready to fly again, Smith said. New Shepard, from this point of view, should be ready to fly in the coming weeks.
The crash and launch disruption did not affect demand for space tourism flights on the vehicle, with new customers signing up in the past nine months. People saw a very safe system, she said, with a real abortion scenario where the capsule would go down well and be ready to go the next day.
New Glenn and other affairs
Smith was less forthcoming about the schedule for the first launch of the Blue Origins New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, which was once planned to fly in 2020.
If you want to know what the launch date for New Glenn is, I can give you one, but it will be wrong, he said. I don’t know if it will arrive early or late.
He said the company has the flight hardware for the gathering vehicle, as well as preparations for its launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The vehicles’ BE-4 engines are one of the biggest boosters to the launch, she noted.
New Glenn’s manifesto for the first few years is full, Smith said, but he didn’t disclose how many launches are on that manifesto. Includes 12 launches for Amazon’s Project Kuiper broadband constellation announced in April 2022, with an option for up to 15 more.
Smith described Blue Origin as a company that transitioned upon his arrival as CEO in 2017 from an R&D mindset to a more commercial focus with several lines of business. This includes the New Shepard and New Glenn, as well as the BE-4 engines it produces for both the New Glenn and United Launch Alliances Vulcan Centaur. The company also won a $3.4 billion NASA award on May 19 to develop a second lunar lander for the Artemis lunar exploration campaign, and is partnered with Sierra Space and other companies on the Orbital Reef commercial space station project.
When I joined Blue, we had very little income, he said. We now have hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and billions of dollars in orders, so we were in a great position.
The New Shepard line of business has good margins overall, he said, but didn’t elaborate. He recognized a tension between profitability and investment, particularly for what he described as capital-intensive projects such as launch vehicles. It will always be a balance between how much you want to invest and how much you want to make this self-sustainable.
Blue Origin has long relied on the investments of its founder, billionaire Jeff Bezos. Several years ago, Bezos said he was investing $1 billion a year in Blue Origin. Smith declined to provide updated figures other than to say that Bezos is making significant investments in the company.
As for a timeline for profitability for Blue Origin, Smith said, it goes back to how much Jeff wants to invest.
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