Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, has out-of-this-world ambitions – with expansion plans to match.
Permit filings at the city of Kent, Wash., reveal plans for a 236,000-square-foot warehouse complex and 102,900 square feet of office space, southwest of Blue Origin’s current 300,000-square-foot headquarters and rocket production facility in an industrial area of the city.
Last year, Blue Origin purchased a 120,000-square-foot warehouse building across the street from its headquarters to support the production of the company’s BE-3 and BE-4 rocket engines, as well as its New Shepard suborbital boosters and crew capsules.
“When we go to the next step with our next rocket, we’re going to use that building as a bigger facility for production,” the Puget Sound Business Journal quoted Blue Origin’s president, Rob Meyerson, as saying.
Blue Origin didn’t respond to GeekWire’s inquiries about the existing warehouse building, or the bigger project that’s under consideration. But a planner for the city of Kent, Jason Garnham, confirmed that the future project is still in the works.
In an email, Garnham told GeekWire that the construction permit applications are “currently on hold, pending our request for more information regarding environmental conditions of the site.”
“Meanwhile, the project is also under review by other jurisdictions such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the applicant is awaiting review and approval by those agencies before proceeding,” Garnham said.
The reviews could take another two to four months, he said.
The project is listed in city records as “Avenue 55 Blue Origin.” Avenue 55, a Seattle-based development management company, did not respond to GeekWire’s requests for comment.
Blue Origin’s workforce is growing along with its expansion plans. Last March, the company said it had 600 employees, but the number has since risen closer to 1,000. More than 100 job openings are listed on its website. Virtually all of those jobs are in Kent, 16 miles south of Seattle, with a smattering of additional openings at Blue Origin’s West Texas suborbital launch site and at its Florida office.
A 750,000-square-foot factory is currently under construction near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and it’s due to be ready to manufacture Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital rockets by the end of 2017.
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) February 18, 2017
The end of this year is just about the time that Blue Origin hopes to start putting test astronauts on New Shepard’s suborbital spaceflights in West Texas. The New Shepard capsule, which has been tested six times over the course of the past two years, is capable of carrying up to six people to altitudes beyond 62 miles. The ride provides several minutes of weightlessness and an astronaut’s-eye view of Earth.
During a recent interview published by the Welland Tribune in Ontario, newly hired Blue Origin engineer Ben Laurence said the company’s testing plan calls for three crew members to pilot the spacecraft. “The other three spots are being filled through a lottery within the company,” Laurence said.
Laurence said he’d love to go. And Bezos has said paying passengers could be flying as early as 2018, although the ticket price hasn’t yet been set and reservations aren’t yet being taken.
The New Shepard is powered by Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine, but the New Glenn will make use of the BE-4, a more powerful engine that burns liquefied natural gas.
The BE-4 is also the current favorite for use on United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. However, Blue Origin is facing competition on that score from Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. ULA is waiting to get the results from the first full-scale BE-4 engine firing before making its choice.
That all-up static fire test is expected to take place sometime in the next few months. If the tests go the way Bezos hopes, Blue Origin aims to ramp up BE-4 operations to reach full production by 2019, either in Kent or someplace else – like Florida, for instance.
Meanwhile, the Washington Legislature is considering a bill that would provide tax credits for Blue Origin and other companies engaged in advanced space manufacturing, as well as biotech and environmental ventures.
For what it’s worth, an analysis from the Washington Department of Revenue suggests that the credits could have a fiscal impact of $30 million over the next two years. Not all of the credits would go to Blue Origin, of course.
How many of Blue Origin’s big plans will turn into reality? Where and when will that happen? Figuring out the economic and policy calculations that will drive Jeff Bezos’ decisions over the next year could get as complicated as, well, rocket science.