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Bue Origin CEO Bob Smith
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith shows a video of a BE-4 rocket engine firing during the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LYNNWOOD, Wash. — Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is now planning to send its first crew on a suborbital space trip during the first half of 2019, and launch its first orbital-class New Glenn rocket in 2021.

That’s the word from Bob Smith, CEO of the Kent, Wash.-based company, who spoke here today at the Aerospace Futures Alliance Summit.

The schedule represents a slight shift to the right for Blue Origin’s development plan, which had been targeting this year for the first crewed flight of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship and 2020 for New Glenn’s first flight. That’s not totally unexpected, considering the challenges involved.

Even that schedule is ambitious. “We’ve got a lot of work on our hands,” Smith told the audience.

Suborbital trips on New Shepard

The New Shepard spacecraft has undergone nine uncrewed test flights, most recently in July, at Blue Origin’s suborbital launch facility in West Texas. It’s already been flying scientific payloads, plus a test dummy nicknamed Mannequin Skywalker.

Blue Origin’s plan calls for its own employees to get on board for the first crewed flights. For what it’s worth, the company already has former space shuttle astronauts on its payroll, including Nicholas Patrick and Jeff Ashby, and they’re likely to be prime candidates for the first flight. When we asked Smith whether the first crew has been selected, he replied, “I’m not going to comment on that.”

Smith stuck to Blue Origin’s position that the ticket price for suborbital space trips would not be announced until after the beginning of those crewed test flights. “I can honestly say to everybody, I don’t know what the price is, because we really honestly haven’t talked about it,” he said.

How many test flights will be flown before paying passengers get on board? “We don’t know what that is, and it’s going to be based similar on what our test cadence relative to even getting to that first flight,” Smith replied.

Virgin Galactic’s billionaire founder, Richard Branson, has said the test program for his crewed SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is “within weeks, not months” of crossing what his company sees as the 50-mile boundary of outer space. (That U.S. Air Force standard is lower than the internationally recognized 62-mile, 100-kilometer Karman Line for spaceflight.) Virgin Galactic’s customers, who are paying as much as $250,000 for a suborbital trip, should follow “in months, not years,” Branson said.

Smith said Blue Origin felt no pressure to match Virgin Galactic in the space tourism race.

“We’re going to fly when we’re safe, and we’re ready, and I think that’s always going to be the case,” he said. “Anything that goes on elsewhere … we get inspired by competition, we don’t necessarily look toward something that we need to go ‘beat’ them on.”

Orbital launches on New Glenn

As for the reusable New Glenn rocket, Smith said work was proceeding on the different elements of the project, ranging from the rocket factory that’s been built in Florida to the BE-4 rocket engines that are currently being manufactured in Kent and tested in Texas.

Last month, United Launch Alliance announced that it would use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine to power the first stage of its next-generation Vulcan rocket. That will open the way for Blue Origin to boost BE-4 production at a new engine factory in Huntsville, Ala.

Blue Origin is also getting Cape Canaveral’s Launch Complex 36 ready to serve for its orbital liftoffs, and is planning to build a rocket testing and refurbishment center nearby.

Smith confirmed that the Stena Freighter, an 18-year-old, 600-foot-long ship that’s currently on its way from Spain to Florida, would serve as the landing ship for Blue Origin’s New Glenn first-stage boosters.

Blue Origin’s flight profile calls for the ship to be moving while the booster maneuvers itself through descent and landing, which is a different twist on the at-sea rocket landing procedure pioneered by SpaceX. Smith said the moving ship would increase stability at sea and contribute to New Glenn’s projected 95 percent weather reliability for launches.

“If Orlando Airport’s open, we’re going to go fly,” Smith said.

In recent months, aerospace sources have seen signs that Blue Origin is facing such a rapid ramp-up that its original plan to launch the first New Glenn rocket in 2020 seemed likely to slip. Smith’s repeated references to the 2021 time frame for New Glenn’s debut served as confirmation of the schedule change.

Blue Origin has already signed up several satellite companies for launches in the early 2020s, but shifting the debut test launch to the right isn’t expected to have a direct effect on those launch plans.

The company is also offering New Glenn as an option for future national security launches, which are currently conducted exclusively by United Launch Alliance and SpaceX. The Air Force is currently considering which launch providers will win its go-ahead. “That announcement is imminent,” Smith said. “Very, very imminent.”

Update for 6 p.m. PT Oct. 10: Just a few hours after Smith spoke, the Air Force made its announcement on supporting future rockets for national security launches, with up to $500 million set aside for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Also, when I counted up New Shepard’s test flights, I forgot about the one in July. That reference has been corrected.

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