There’s no clue from the outside that the nondescript building is the home of the notoriously secretive Blue Origin.
The building on South 76th Avenue in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington, blends into a neighborhood of light industrial facilities and warehouses, including a large fulfillment center for Amazon.com. The company name isn’t visible from the street, just a sign displaying its address.
The interior, however, is a different story. Guests, like those of us on the company’s first-ever media tour, are ushered into a lobby that is home to an eclectic collection of space and science fiction artifacts: a giant model of the starship Enterprise from the Star Trek movies, a much smaller model of the ill-fated X-33, and a Russian Sokol pressure suit.
Take away the space collectibles and the facility might still pass as one belonging to a generic tech company. There are open-plan offices, employees walking the halls with their dogs, and a large lounge with a “communal coffee pot,” as company founder Jeff Bezos put it, to encourage people working in different areas to interact.
On the other side of the wall from the lounge, though, is something else entirely: high bays filled with space hardware. One section is devoted to Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle and its BE-3 engine. On the tour, we saw technicians working on two crew capsules and three propulsion modules, part of an initial fleet of six vehicles the company plans to build.
Much of the tour, though, focused on the company’s work on its BE-4 engine intended for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle and Blue Origin’s own orbital vehicle. In one section of the building, employees used sophisticated equipment like five-axis milling machines and laser welding systems to build engine components that will undergo testing at Blue Origin’s engine test site in West Texas.
For our benefit, the company set up several displays on the factory floor where engineers, some recent college graduates and others veterans of companies like Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX, discussed various aspects of the design and development of the BE-4. That included plans to remodel the factory floor to accommodate a production line called the “BE-4 highway” that will culminate in a two-story final assembly stand for the six-meter-tall engines.
There are open-plan offices, employees walking the halls with their dogs, and a large lounge with a “communal coffee pot,” as company founder Jeff Bezos put it, to encourage people working in different areas to interact.
We spent more than two hours on the factory floor, furiously scribbling in our notebooks all the technical details we could (the company prohibited us from using audio recorders, and allowed photos at only a single stop.) Bezos participated in the entire tour, often chiming in about technical details regarding the BE-4, New Shepard or other systems, revealing a degree of technical expertise that rivaled that of his engineers.
In fact, the tour at times lagged behind schedule as company executives struggled to pry Bezos away from a particular display. Bezos seemed like he’d be willing to spend the entire day talking about rocket engine injector designs and advanced manufacturing techniques, if given the chance.
Bezos, who also talked about his long-term vision of enabling millions of people to live in and work in space, made no apologies for stretching out the factory tour. “I hope you can sense that I like this,” he said as the tour wrapped up. That passion was on clear display, as well as the technical substance that may help him realize that vision.