Spectrum News 13 — As Blue Origin prepares for its first orbital launch using the New Glenn rocket in the new year, the aerospace company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos received some accolades from the Brevard County Commission.
On Tuesday, commissioners presented members of Blue Origin’s team with a resolution commending the work that the company has done to prepare Launch Complex 36 to launch New Glenn in 2022.
“Of all of the thousands of rockets that we’ve launched in this county since the early 50s, not one has ever been built here, and that’s going to change now,” Commissioner Curt Smith said.
Speaking before the commission, Scott Henderson, the vice president of test and flight operations and Florida site director for Blue Origin, noted that the company’s investment of more than $1.5 billion into the Florida economy is a key part of their goals.
“Our vision at Blue Origin is millions of people living and working in space for the benefit of the Earth,” he said. “It’s not something that’s going to happen in our lifetime — maybe in our kids’ lifetime, maybe in our grandkids’ lifetime, but I think it’s special that we’re going to be able to say that that road to space started here in Brevard County at mile marker zero right there at Complex 36.”
Henderson said that Blue Origin has hired more than 1,000 people in Florida and an average of 500 construction workers have been working at the LC36. A ribbon cutting was held at the site in October.
Henderson received his bachelor’s degree in astronautical engineering from the U.S. Air Force Academy and his masters in engineering management from Florida Tech. He worked for SpaceX and for Raytheon Intelligence and Information Systems before starting at Blue Origin in March 2014.
He was also the space launch commander for the 45th Launch Group in Cape Canaveral before he started working in the commercial sector.
Road to New Glenn
In 2021, Blue Origin supported the launch of three crewed missions aboard its New Shepard rocket from its launch site in Texas and is aiming for a late 2022 launch of New Glenn, the reusable orbital rocket.
In an interview with Spectrum News 13 following the resolution acceptance, Henderson said Blue Origin is making its way through the checklist that would have the rocket ready for an integrated test and wet dress rehearsal in the third quarter.
“The big things that we have remaining are to complete the first flight articles, payload fairings, which will house the satellites that we’re launching,” he said. “And while the launchpad is done, now we have to marry up the booster with the launch pad and to check out all the propellant, high-pressure gas, hydraulic systems and all the command and control systems that are necessary to launch.”
The prospect of getting to launch from LC36 is an exciting one for Henderson and his team, since he said it will add their work to the legacy that was created at that site.
“We exist on a very historical launch complex,” he said. “Complex 36 was where a lot of the very early interplanetary missions left the planet to go explore. So, we’re proud of that heritage.”
Working through the pandemic to develop the New Glenn has been challenging, but Henderson said he admires how well Blue Origin’s employees have persevered.
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“It has been a really challenging year,” he said. “When you’re trying to build something, you can’t do it remotely. You can’t do it separated. So, we’ve had to have a lot of our team in the factory working with some of our design team off-site.
“And just the stick-to-itiveness that the team has shown to persevere through all that and still deliver flight hardware articles that are going into tests and are being used to build up that first flight stage, that’s been most impressive.”
The first stage of the New Glenn rocket is powered by seven BE-4 LOX/LNG (liquefied oxygen/liquified nitrogen gas) engines, which are currently being developed. Current manufacturing is happening in Kent, Wash., but production is shifting to Blue Origin’s engine manufacturing facility in Huntsville, Ala.
Those engines will also power United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket.
“Our team in Texas has been busy testing the BE-4 engine, getting it ready for delivery early in the year to United Launch Alliance, as well as to our New Glenn booster,” Henderson said.
Refurbishment on a 1960’s era test stand is being finished up at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville to be able to test the rate production of BE-4 and BE-3U engines. The team aims to have the first test performed in the first quarter of 2022.
“The Huntsville factory is ramping up to speed. They’ve built their first flight engine hardware there and it’s on the test stand. We’re currently testing in Texas,” Henderson said.
Beyond the Space Coast
Beyond preparing for the launch of New Glenn and sending tourists to the edge of space and back on New Shepard, Blue Origin is also busy working on its commercial space station: Orbital Reef.
The low-Earth-orbit habitat and workspace is being developed with Sierra Space along with several other partners. It has yet to be determined where the production work will happen, Henderson said.
“It’s going to be really interesting to see how that plays out,” he said. “Clearly, Florida would be a great place to produce, but we also have our factory in Washington State, our factory in Huntsville, and we have a lot of land in Texas. And there are other states that would probably look to compete.
“So, I think we’ll probably see that play out over the course of the next several months. I’m here in Florida. I’d love to see that work come to Florida.”