An Exclusive Interview with Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson
Few space companies have been as intriguing, but also as maddening to follow, as Blue Origin.
The company, founded by Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos, has kept a tight wrap on its activities over the years, often announcing milestones like test flights of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle only after they happen.
The company, though, has become more open as its ambitions have grown. It still announces test flights only afterwards, but they’re now accompanied by detailed blog posts by Bezos and slick videos.
Meanwhile, Blue Origin is working on engines for two other companies, Orbital ATK and United Launch Alliance, while also designing its own orbital launch vehicle that will be built and launched from Florida.
Blue Origin president Rob Meyerson, who has been with the company since 2003, discussed its suborbital and orbital efforts with SpaceNews a few days after the company’s most recent New Shepard test flight Jan. 22.
How did the latest New Shepard flight go?
We haven’t seen or heard of anything that’s of concern. The vehicle performed perfectly. The BE-3 engine again performed perfectly.
What is the test plan going forward?
We have dozens of flights planned before we start flying people on board New Shepard. This flight came about two months after the flight in November. We expect to shorten that turnaround time over time this year, and fly this vehicle again and again.
I’d also point that out that between the November flight and this flight, we did inspections of the vehicle but we didn’t even remove the BE-3 engine. We may remove it in the future, but having the ability to turn the vehicle around quickly is really going to depend on going to more of an inspection mode on some of those critical subsystems than an overhaul mode.
How many flights do you expect this initial test vehicle or future vehicles to make over their lives?
It’s in the dozens of flights. Eventually we want to have a 100-mission life, but it really depends on what the measured loads and environment are that we get from the flight test program.
Are you still planning to carry research payloads on New Shepard flights later this year?
Yes. We’ve picked our first three payload customers: Purdue University, University of Central Florida and Louisiana State University. They have been working with us as pathfinders over the last couple of years to evaluate our payload interfaces. Those early flights will really demonstrate the unique environment and the opportunity we can offer the science community with New Shepard well ahead of those astronaut flights.
What is the status of the Florida manufacturing facility and launch site you announced in September?
There’s a lot going on. We’re growing our team right now. We’re working on the design of the facilities. We’re working a lot with the state, and the authorities at the Air Force and NASA, on getting the necessary approvals that are needed. Of course, there’s a lot of those approvals needed before we can break ground. We’re doing a lot of design work on the facilities. It’s all going really well.
Do you have a time frame when you expect to break ground on the manufacturing facility or the launch pad?
For the manufacturing facility, it’s really the environmental work that’s the long pole there. I believe it’s early in 2017 when we break ground.
And the launch pad?
That depends on the environmental assessment, so that is probably later this year.
How is work progressing on the BE-4 engine ULA wants to use for Vulcan?
It’s going great. We completed the critical design review last fall. We’re starting to build the first development engine. We’ve done extensive combustion testing on both the preburner and the injector: more than 150 tests. The data looks great, and it’s matching our predictions really well.
When will that engine be ready to start testing?
Our facilities are going to be ready in the middle of the year. We’re expecting to get that engine on the stand and tested by the fourth quarter of this year. There’s a lot that has to happen between now and then, but that’s what we’re working to.
That schedule comes around the time ULA has said they would make a decision on the engine for Vulcan. Do you need to start testing before they make a decision?
The way that we look at it is that ULA has made their decision. ULA is here, actively involved on a daily basis with our team, and vice versa. We work together all the time. The Vulcan is being designed around the BE-4. They’ve made an investment in the engine, and I should point out it’s a significant investment. The BE-4 is fully funded. It’s not waiting on government funding.
But ULA is still supporting work on Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 as a backup.
I think that’s a smart move on their part. They should always have a backup. But the AR1 is not as far along as the BE-4 is. ULA has reported it’s a year and a half to two years behind BE-4. The alternatives are really reliant on U.S. government money, which would come through an Air Force program. There’s a lot of government money that would be needed to develop that alternative engine.
Orbital ATK recently won an Air Force contract to fund work on the BE-3U engine. Can you describe what’s involved in that work?
We’re really excited to be working with Orbital ATK on this Air Force program. BE-3U is the upper stage variant of our BE-3 engine that flew on New Shepard. It requires a few mods that we’ll make based on the lessons learned in its development, including a larger expansion ratio nozzle. To have the expertise of Orbital ATK working together with us on this is really significant.
The choice Orbital ATK made, and the one ULA made a few years ago, has put us into this position as the rocket engine provider of choice for America’s premier launch companies. It’s a testament to the investment that’s been made at Blue over the last 10 years in rocket propulsion development.
Will you be free to use the BE-3U for your own vehicles, if you so desire?
Absolutely. Our agreements on BE-4 and BE-3U, when we work with others, is we retain the right to use those engines on our own vehicles. We retain the right to sell those engines to others as well.
Where does work stand on your orbital vehicle? How far along is that design?
The design of the orbital vehicle is coming along. We have a number of developmental milestones this year, and we hope to share more information about that orbital launch vehicle and its configuration later this year.
When people talk about Blue Origin, they almost always talk about it as secretive. For example, you announce test flights after they happen. Do you anticipate becoming a little more open in the future, like live webcasts of test flights?
I think over the last year that we’ve been a lot more public about our announcements and our plans: the ULA BE-4 announcement, the orbital launch site announcement in September, our mission in April, our mission in November, our mission just last week. Things like live webcasting are options we’re talking about internally. We haven’t made any decisions about what we want to do there, but we’re investigating all kinds of options.
How involved is Jeff Bezos in Blue Origin’s operations?
Jeff is extremely passionate about this business. But in terms of his day-to-day dealings and where he is, I can’t go into that.
There is a perception of rivalry between Blue Origin and SpaceX, in part because of the Twitter back-and-forth between Bezos and Elon Musk. Do you consider SpaceX to be a rival?
Do we have competition? Yes. I think there’s competition with a lot of companies in the industry. We are all approaching things a different way. Blue Origin happens to be approaching things starting with suborbital and using the experience that we gain to apply to our orbital launch vehicle that we’re developing. That’s a good thing. Competition is a good thing, too. It keeps you sharp and it keeps you focused.
You have plans for your own orbital vehicle, but at the same time you’re supplying engines for other companies’ vehicles that may end up being competitors to yours. How do you balance being both supplier and competitor?
We kind of look at it in the long term. Our long-term vision is that there are millions of people living and working in space. We believe that over the long term that there are lots of launch opportunities. In the near term, we see these as very complementary. We’re working with ULA on BE-4, we’re learning a lot from them, and I think they’re learning some things from us. Same thing with Orbital ATK.
The way that we look at it is that ULA has made their decision… The Vulcan is being designed around the BE-4.”