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Blue Origin BE-4 engines
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines are currently produced at the company’s facility in Kent, Wash. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ space venture, Blue Origin, plans to invest $200 million to build its BE-4 rocket engine in a new facility in Huntsville, Ala., which has been known for decades as the Rocket City.

Construction of the 200,000-square-foot facility at Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park can begin once Blue Origin wins an engine production contract from United Launch Alliance for its next-generation Vulcan rocket, the Huntsville / Madison County Chamber said today in a news release.

The BE-4 engine is currently being produced at Blue Origin’s home base in Kent, Wash., and tested at the company’s West Texas launch facility. It’s due to be used not only for the Vulcan, but also for Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital-class rocket.

A $200 million rocket factory and launch facility for the New Glenn is already under construction in Florida, with completion expected by early 2018.

Washington state and Florida had been under consideration for the engine factory as well, but the nod went instead to Huntsville – which has a rich heritage in rocket engine development going back to the days of Wernher von Braun and the U.S.-Soviet space race. NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket is being developed primarily at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.

The Blue Origin announcement was made today at Huntsville’s Davidson Center for Space Exploration.

“Alabama is a great state for aerospace manufacturing, and we are proud to produce America’s next rocket engine right here in Rocket City,” Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said in a statement. “The area’s skilled workforce and leading role in rocket propulsion development make Huntsville the ideal location for our state-of-the-art manufacturing facility.”

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said Blue Origin’s decision was “excellent news for our state,” while Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey commended Bezos and Meyerson “for their vision to create this innovative company.”

“Because of this investment, more Alabamians can provide a better living for their families, and it helps cement Alabama as the preferred destination for the aerospace industry,” Ivey said.

The Huntsville chamber said the new facility would bring up to 342 jobs to the area, providing an average annual salary of $75,000.

The BE-4 engine is designed to be powered by liquefied natural gas and deliver more than 500,000 pounds of thrust. Blue Origin’s schedule calls for the engine to be ready for the Vulcan’s first flights in 2019.

However, the engine still must complete testing and gain acceptance from ULA. In May, Blue Origin reported that a set of powerpack hardware was destroyed during testing, and although the company said testing would resume soon, there’s been little word since.

If ULA decides against going with the BE-4, it has a “Plan B” in place to use Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 rocket engine instead.

The Huntsville project is also contingent on receiving the required permits and approvals, including investment incentives, from city and county governments next month.

Blue Origin also has a suborbital space program known as New Shepard, which aims to send passengers to the edge of space from the West Texas launch facility as early as next year. That program uses hardware built in Kent and is unaffected by the Huntsville deal.

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