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    HomeTechnologyBlue Origin Merritt Island rocket factory ramps up for New Glenn debut

    Blue Origin Merritt Island rocket factory ramps up for New Glenn debut

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    After years of hiding in plain sight on the Space Coast, so to speak, Blue Origin’s first New Glenn heavy-lift rocket is finally expected to launch this year — with work accelerating inside the aerospace company’s secretive, massive manufacturing campus on north Merritt Island.

    “It’s a rather large facility. And we’re building boosters to support not just the first launch this year, but multiple launches per year — ramping up rapidly to support a growing manifest that cuts across commercial, civil and hopefully national security here in the future,” Lars Hoffman, Blue Origin vice president for national security sales, said during a SpaceCom presentation at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

    Measuring more than 320 feet tall, New Glenn will rank among the largest vehicles ever built. Built, launched and refurbished on the Space Coast, New Glenn has a reusable first stage, expendable upper stage and jumbo-sized 7-meter-diameter nose cone fairing to enclose large payloads.

    Amazon founder Jeff Bezos started Blue Origin in 2000, while Elon Musk created SpaceX in 2002. But the billionaires have taken markedly different paths in developing orbital rockets, said Laura Forczyk, founder and executive director of the Atlanta space consulting firm Astralytical. She does not view Blue Origin as a short-term competitor to SpaceX.

    “They’ve had just as much time as SpaceX. They’ve had just as much time as SpaceX — but they’ve been taking their time. They’ve been very deliberate. And they have different areas of interest,” Forczyk said.

    SpaceX rockets accounted for 68 of the Space Coast’s 72 orbital launches last year, along with nine of the 10 launches thus far in 2024. That represents 94% of that 82-launch total.

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    Conversely, Forczyk said Blue Origin’s sights are focused on lunar development. Last May, Blue Origin secured a $3.4 billion contract to develop a human landing system for NASA’s Artemis V mission to send astronauts to the moon.

    “Right now, they’re not even competing for the same customer base in the short term. In the long term is where things might change. Because in the long term, we do have (SpaceX’s) Starship becoming operational and increasing its cadence, and we just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet,” Forczyk said.

    “But what’s interesting will be how New Glenn and ULA’s Vulcan and Starship all compete in the long run,” she said.

    Blue Origin’s Merritt Island manufacturing campus sprawls just south of the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, dominating the skyline off Space Commerce Way inside Exploration Park.

    Hoffman offered a rare public glimpse of the Merritt Island campus and Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station — where the company has invested more than $1 billion constructing state-of-the-art facilities — during SpaceCom, a space convention that drew more than 4,000 attendees from all 50 states and 80-plus countries.

    Hoffman displayed a PowerPoint slide during his Feb. 1 speech identifying the various white-and-blue rectangular buildings across the Blue Origin manufacturing campus. Buildings include vertical tank cleaning and test facilities for rockets’ first and second stages; a precision cleaning facility; a surface coating facility; and a south campus warehouse to store hardware.

    “It’s still growing. We broke ground recently for some new buildings out there. So stay tuned for more updates,” Hoffman told the crowd.

    He also displayed a photo taken inside a large manufacturing building where workers build New Glenn first and second stages side-by-side along parallel assembly lanes.

    Hoffman said Blue Origin has grown rapidly since 2019, and the company now employs more than 10,000 workers nationwide, while also occupying “a very large footprint” on Merritt Island.

    The first question Hoffman fielded from the audience: “Will New Glenn launch this year?”

    “Yes. Next,” he quickly replied, drawing laughter.

    Blue Origin officials remain tight-lipped regarding the New Glenn target inaugural launch date, which remains unannounced. It will come on the heels of the historic Jan. 8 maiden launch of competitor United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket, which drew praise from across the space industry. Meanwhile, SpaceX continues to test its heavy-lift Starship from its remote Texas launch site, though both flights thus far ended in explosions.

    Blue Origin at Launch Complex 36

    Hoffman also displayed a labeled map of LC-46, which lies about nine miles (as the crow flies) from the Merritt Island facilities. He said crews finished rebuilding the launch complex last year, and extensive testing has occurred during the past year to prepare for the inaugural liftoff.

    “You see the integration facility there, with the ramp going up to the launch table, a water tower nearby to support the deluge system. It’s been fully tested. And we are ready to go. We’re excited to launch,” Hoffman told the SpaceCom audience.

    The 351-foot-tall water tower — ranking as one of the world’s tallest — and two nearby lightning protection towers are visible on the horizon from the sand in downtown Cocoa Beach.

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    From 1962 to 2005, LC-36 hosted 145 Atlas-Centaur launches, the Cape Canaveral Space Force Museum reports. The facility was decommissioned afterward, and Blue Origin leased the complex in 2015.

    After launch, New Glenn first-stage boosters will land atop ships out on the ocean 620 miles downrange, head back to shore, offload at Port Canaveral and return to LC-36 for inspections, maintenance and servicing before rejoining the fleet.

    “I’m excited to see what Blue’s future looks like here. And I think they’re hoping to launch later this year — and that’ll be exciting,” Space Florida President and CEO Rob Long said.

    “There’s so many more efficiencies I think they can gain from building very close to their launch site, so they can turn and refurbish and launch. I think both Blue Origin and SpaceX have demonstrated the value of being able to manufacture, or at least do what I would call a repair and overhaul for boosters, to allow that pace to continue,” Long said.

    “I think it makes a lot of sense logistically for a company to manufacture launch vehicles as near as they can to the launch site,” he said.

    ‘Ramping up rapidly’ for growing manifest

    Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Washington. In a New Glenn-related project on the Cape, construction remains ongoing on Amazon’s $120 million Project Kuiper broadband-satellite processing facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. A ULA Atlas V launched the first two Kuiper prototype satellites in October.

    New Glenn is manifested to launch up to 27 Project Kuiper satellite missions over a five-year span. Conversely, SpaceX’s Starlink broadband constellation had grown to 5,402 functioning satellites as of Wednesday, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

    New Glenn will also launch payloads from three of the world’s six largest satellite operators: Eutelsat, JSAT and Telesat, according to an April 2022 Blue Origin press release.

    “We’re looking forward to New Glenn’s first launch later this year. We have four New Glenn boosters and 11 fairings in production,” Blue Origin spokesperson Sara Blask said in an email.

    “New Glenn’s purpose is to drive down cost through reusability — its first stage is designed for a minimum of 25 missions. It’s a multi-faceted vehicle designed to meet the broadest range of customer needs, and is capable of taking 45 metric tons to low-Earth orbit and 13 metric tons to geostationary transfer orbit,” Blask said.

    “We knew our customers would want more ways to carry increased mass and volume to space, which is why we were the first to jump beyond the standard five-meter fairing,” she said.

    Looking to the future, Forczyk cited the performance of the pair of Blue Origin-built BE-4 liquefied natural gas engines that powered the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan into orbit last month. BE-4 engines will also propel New Glenn.

    “It was impressive seeing those engines fly on Vulcan. Now Vulcan is a different vehicle than New Glenn, but still it was really impressive to see Vulcan succeed the way it did,” Forczyk said.

    “And that gives me hope that New Glenn will actually succeed when it finally is ready to launch,” she said.

    For the latest news from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, visit floridatoday.com/space.

    Rick Neale is a Space Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter/X: @RickNeale1

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