Blue Origin Planning Reusable Launch Vehicle

Blue Origin, one of the winners in the second round of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev-2) seed-money effort, is planning to develop a reusable launch vehicle to carry its biconic seven-seat capsule to low Earth orbit, following an interim step when the company will offer suborbital tourist and scientific flights in a three-seat version.

The secretive startup company —which is based in Kent, Wash., and operates a remote test site in West Texas—received $22 million in CCDev-2 funding on April 18 (Aerospace DAILY, April 19). That is exactly the amount it requested to hasten its development work, according to NASA procurement documents.

Although the award was the smallest of the four granted, the agency apparently made it in the hope that the deep pockets of Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who also founded Amazon.com, may open up an alternative to the approaches under development by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX).

In its CCDev-2 proposal, Blue Origin said it will mature its seven-seat “Space Vehicle” through a system requirements review, test the pusher escape system it started under CCDev-1 on the ground and in flight, and begin testing the 100,000-lb.-thrust liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen engine it plans to power its Reusable Booster System (RBS).

“Each one-time use of current expendable booster technology represents a prime opportunity for cost reduction,” the company stated. “Blue Origin’s RBS employs deep-throttling, restartable engines to perform vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) maneuvers for booster recovery and reuse.”

Initially the company plans to launch its Space Vehicle on a human-rated Atlas V, and transition to the reusable booster later on. The vehicle apparently will use VTVL technology already tested on an unpiloted vehicle dubbed New Shepard, which traces its heritage to the DC-X and –XA testbeds flown by the Air Force and NASA in the 1990s. It will return to Earth on dry land “to minimize the costs of recovery and reuse.”

According to its proposal, Blue Origin already is conducting integrated testing of a “suborbital booster” that will carry a three-seat “suborbital capsule” that is in final assembly to the edge of space.

“The suborbital vehicle will be fully reusable and capable of flying three or more astronauts to an altitude of over 328,000 ft. (above 100 km) for science research and adventure,” the Blue Origin proposal states.

Blue Origin plans to use its CCDev-2 funds to accelerate its work toward a full-up, end-to-end space transportation system, including advancing the design of the Space Vehicle by completing “key system trades,” designing the thermal protection system in partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center, defining the capsule’s biconic shape, and conducting the reviews necessary to generate “a baseline definition architecture and system requirements.”

In addition to Ames, Blue Origin has partnered with NASA’s Stennis Space Center to test engine thrust chambers; United Launch Alliance to integrate the Space Vehicle on the Atlas V; Aerojet for solid rocket motors and test facilities; the Lockheed Martin Missiles & Fire Control High-Speed Wind Tunnel in Grand Prairie, Texas, for Space Vehicle testing; and the Air Force High-Speed Test Track near Alamogordo, N.M., to test the pusher escape system.

By Frank Morring, Jr.
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