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Blue Origin's New Shepard prototype spaceship blasts off from its Texas launch pad. (Credit: Blue Origin)
Blue Origin’s New Shepard prototype spaceship blasts off in January. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is lifting the curtain just a bit on its future plans for rocket engines and spaceflights.

One of the revelations relates to progress on its methane-fueled BE-4 rocket engine, which is on track to provide propulsion for United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. Blue Origin tweeted out a picture of the engine’s bell, taken at the company’s production facility in Kent, Wash.:

Other revelations came out at a conference in Washington, D.C., organized by the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. One of the speakers was Brett Alexander, Blue Origin’s director of business development and strategy.

Alexander provided a recap of Blue Origin’s recent successes, including the suborbital test flights of the company’s reusable New Shepard rocket at a Texas test range in November and January. The uncrewed tests are aimed at opening the way for passenger flights.

Reports from the meeting quoted Alexander as saying there would be a couple of dozen such test flights over the course of the next couple of years – which would work out to an average of one flight per month. Alexander also told the gathering that it’s too early to announce the ticket price for passenger flights.

Alexander emphasized that Blue Origin’s long-term goal was to move on to orbital space missions. Over the past several years, NASA has awarded the company contracts totaling more than $25 million for development of technologies for orbital crew transport. Today, Alexander was quoted as saying NASA’s funds accounted for only “small single digits” of the percentage of Blue Origin’s total investment.

Rocket reusability and human spaceflight could bring significant changes to the launch industry over the next 10 years, Alexander said. Those objectives also lead the list for SpaceX – which means the billionaire rivalry between Bezos and SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, is likely to continue for years to come.

Update for 10:50 p.m. PT Feb. 2: There’s additional information out there about Blue Origin’s flight program. The schedule calls for suborbital research flights (without people) to begin this year. The first three payload customers are Purdue University, the University of Central Florida and Louisiana State University.

So exactly when will passengers join payloads on Blue Origin’s spaceship? That all depends on how the test program turns out. In the meantime, you can sign up to keep posted.

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