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New Glenn in rocket lineup
Blue Origin’s chart shows a lineup of past, present and future rockets, ranging from Orbital ATK’s Antares to the New Glenn configurations and the Saturn 5 moon rocket. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos is providing a sneak preview of the “New Glenn” rocket for orbital launches, which his Blue Origin space venture has been working on for four years already.

Bezos shared the design and basic specifications in an update sent to thousands of email subscribers.

“Named in honor of John Glenn, the first American to orbit Earth, New Glenn is 23 feet in diameter and lifts off with 3.85 million pounds of thrust from seven BE-4 engines,” Bezos wrote. “Burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, these are the same BE-4 engines that will power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket.”

The two-stage version of New Glenn would be capable of flying commercial satellites and astronauts into low Earth orbit. Bezos said a three-stage New Glenn could send payloads on “demanding beyond-LEO missions.”

Blue Origin has been designing, developing and testing its first launch system, the suborbital New Shepard, for more than a decade. That rocket ship was named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard, who took a history-making suborbital trip in 1961. Glenn followed up a year later with NASA’s first orbital mission.

Over the past year, Blue Origin has flown the same New Shepard booster and crew capsule to outer space and back four times. The fifth flight, scheduled for October, is expected to test the craft under conditions so harsh that the booster is not expected to survive intact.

If all goes according to plan, the company will start launching test astronauts next year, and take on paying passengers in 2018.

Blue Origin builds its suborbital spaceships at a plant south of Seattle, and launches them from a West Texas proving ground. But the orbital rockets are due to be manufactured at and launched from a rocket facility that’s currently under construction in Florida.

“We plan to fly New Glenn for the first time before the end of this decade from historic Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral, Florida,” Bezos wrote.

The two-stage New Glenn will be 270 feet tall. The BE-4 engines to power the first stage are still under development and should go into full-scale testing around the end of the year. The second stage will be powered by a single, vacuum-optimized variant of the BE-4, Bezos said.

The three-stage New Glenn will be 313 feet tall. The extra stage will have a single BE-3 rocket engine – the same hydrogen-fueled engine used on New Shepard, but optimized for use in the vacuum of outer space.

New Glenn’s liftoff thrust would be twice that of SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which is currently being used to send cargo to the International Space Station and put satellites in geosynchronous transfer orbit.

But it wouldn’t be as powerful as the Falcon Heavy, which is rated at 5.5 million pounds of thrust. SpaceX hopes to start flying the Falcon Heavy within the next few months, depending on the results of the investigation into this month’s Falcon 9 launch-pad explosion.

Like the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, New Glenn will be designed so that its first stage can be landed intact, refueled and reflown. That’s a key part of the strategy being followed by Bezos as well as SpaceX’s billionaire founder, Elon Musk, to lower the cost of access to space.

Neither the Falcon Heavy nor New Glenn would match the Apollo-era Saturn 5 moon rocket, which produced 7.6 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Nor would they match NASA’s Space Launch System, which is expected to pack upwards of 8 million pounds of thrust when it makes its debut in 2018.

But just give Bezos (and Musk) a little more time.

“Our vision is millions of people living and working in space, and New Glenn is a very important step. It won’t be the last, of course,” Bezos wrote. “Up next on our drawing board: New Armstrong. But that’s a story for the future.”

Blue Origin hasn’t yet established a ticket price or a reservation system for its New Shepard suborbital space trips, let alone trips to the moon on New Armstrong. But you can sign up for email updates from Blue Origin via the company’s website.

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