Blue Origin Reveals Its Heavy Lift Rocket — New Glenn

Blue Origin Reveals Its Heavy Lift Rocket — New Glenn

Blue Origin has announced plans to test a heavy lift rocket, New Glenn, by the end of the decade.  It will be more capable than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, but smaller than NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS).  Blue Origin plans to use New Glenn to launch humans as well as cargo into space.

Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, the rocket will come in 2- and 3-stage versions.  Like Blue Origin’s current New Shepard rocket (named for Alan Shepard, the first American in space), it will launch and land vertically and be reusable (first stage only).  New Shepard is a suborbital rocket that uses Blue’s BE-3 liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen (LOX) engines.  New Glenn will use Blue’s BE-4 engines, the first engines to use a liquefied natural gas (methane)/LOX combination.

Blue’s development of the BE-4 is well known.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced a partnership with Blue exactly two years ago to use BE-4 engines for its new Vulcan rocket, expected to debut around the end the decade, although it subsequently decided to also consider Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1.  It will choose one of the two in the next few months.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, who is also President of, has hinted at his development of a large orbital rocket before and yesterday’s announcement revealed the company has been working on it for three years already.  Bezos released a graphic comparing the two versions of New Glenn with other past, present and future rockets.

Graphic credit:  Blue Origin
Editor’s Note:  Antares (U.S. – Orbital ATK), Soyuz (Russia), Ariane 5 (Europe), Atlas V (U.S.-United Launch Alliance), Falcon 9 (U.S.-SpaceX), and Delta IV Heavy (U.S.-United Launch Alliance) are currently operational orbital launch vehicles.  Vulcan (ULA), Falcon Heavy (SpaceX) and New Glenn (Blue Origin) are in development.  Saturn V (NASA) was used to launch Apollo astronauts to the Moon and the Skylab space station; its last flight was in 1973.

New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and launches with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines, Bezos said in a statement.  The 2-stage version is 270 feet tall, while the 3-stage variant is 313 feet tall.  The two use the same first and second stages (the second stage is powered by a single BE-4). The third stage uses one BE-3 engine.

The first launch of New Glenn is planned before the end of this decade from Launch Complex-36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.  Bezos plans to use it to launch commercial satellites as well as humans into space and he added that the 3-stage version can fly “demanding” missions beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), although he was not explicit about the nature of those missions.  LEO is a popular orbit for some commercial and many government satellites (the International Space Station is in LEO, for example), but most commercial satellites are placed into geostationary orbit high above the equator, so it is not unusual or demanding for rockets to be able to launch missions beyond LEO, even far into the solar system like the New Horizons mission to Pluto that launched on ULA’s Atlas V.

The terminology has come to be used in recent years, however, to refer to human missions to the distance of the Moon and beyond.  Bezos did restate his vision of  “millions of people living and working in space” and asserted that New Glenn is just one step in that direction:  “Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong.  But that’s a story for the future.”

That rocket would be named in honor of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon.

Interestingly, Bezos omitted NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) from the graphic, using a Saturn V for comparison instead.  NASA is building SLS to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.  Its first test flight is scheduled for late 2018.   Three versions are planned — 70, 105, and 130 metric tons (MT) to LEO.  The largest would be slightly greater in capability than the Saturn V.   The 70-MT version, which will launch in 2018, is 322 feet tall and its engines will generate 8.8 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.  The 130-MT version will be 365 feet tall with 9.2 million pounds of thrust.

SLS critics assert that there is no need for the government to pay for a new big rocket because SpaceX and Blue Origin are moving forward on their own and NASA can buy launch services from them.  NASA does not own any launch vehicles today (the space shuttle was the last, and that program ended in 2011).  It purchases services from companies like SpaceX, ULA, and Orbital ATK.   SLS advocates argue that SLS will be much more capable than any of the commercial designs and is required for challenging missions such as sending humans to Mars.  The need to ensure a strong U.S. industrial base is another argument often used to explain the need for the government to continue to be involved in building new rockets. 

SLS is an expensive undertaking.  NASA has released a cost estimate for the program only through the first launch (Exploration Mission-1) — $7 billion for development or $9.78 billion if formulation costs are included.  That excludes costs for associated ground systems at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.   The Government Accountability Office is skeptical of NASA’s cost estimating procedures, however, and no estimate has been released for the program beyond the first flight.  SLS will launch the Orion spacecraft and NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development Bill Hill reportedly said his goal is for SLS, Orion and their ground systems to cost no more than $2 billion per year for production and operation once development is complete. That is only a goal, however, and still would represent a sizeable percentage of NASA’s budget every year for the indefinite future.

Blue Origin’s announcement may add fuel to the debate over the need for SLS, although it has strong support in Congress.  It was Congress, in fact, that insisted NASA build a new, big rocket in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act after President Obama cancelled the Constellation program.  Begun under President George W. Bush, Constellation was designed to send humans back to the surface of the Moon and someday to Mars using a rocket called Ares V.   Development of that rocket was, indeed, terminated by President Obama, but Congress replaced it with SLS.  The SLS program is managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent SLS supporter.  It has strong support from others in the Senate and the House, as well as NASA itself.

One complaint about SLS is that it will be launched so infrequently — at most, once a year — that its safety could be undermined because launch crews will not maintain their proficiency.  Against that backdrop, the market for New Glenn seems soft unless Bezos’s vision of millions of people living and working in space is realized.

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