RENTON, Wash. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it has test-fired its BE-7 rocket engine for the total six-minute duration it would need for a landing on the moon.
Patrick Zeitouni, Blue Origin’s head of advanced development programs, said the milestone for cumulative firing time was reached during a test conducted just a few days ago at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama — part of a series of tests that began a month ago.
“We’re very excited,” Zeitouni said here at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace conference. “That means we’re getting a whole lot closer to getting that engine fielded,” he said. “And as you guys know, propulsion, rocket engines are extremely important. They’re the long pole in the tent when you’re trying to develop a new system and bring it online.”
A single hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine would power Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lander for payload deliveries to the lunar surface, packing up to 10,000 pounds of thrust.
Bezos unveiled a mockup of the lander and its engine in May in Washington, D.C. Just a week after that big reveal, NASA said Blue Origin and 10 other companies would share $45.5 million in funds set aside to develop lunar lander concepts, under the terms of a program called NextSTEP E.
NextSTEP E focuses on the descent stage of a lunar lander. A follow-up offering, known as NextSTEP H, is due to be issued imminently to solicit proposals for the ascent stage. (Update for July 22: The draft solicitation has been released. See note below for details.)
NASA is using the process to select concepts for commercial landers that’ll be capable of transporting astronauts between a yet-to-be-built, moon-orbiting Gateway space outpost and the lunar surface.
The plan calls for the landers to be available in time for the astronauts’ first trip to the lunar surface in 2024. This week, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told lawmakers that he expected two designs to win the go-ahead for full development.
Bezos and Blue Origin are counting on Blue Moon to serve as one of the options. During an interview that aired this week on CBS, Bezos said he hoped Blue Origin would be “an instrumental part” of the Artemis moon program.
Zeitouni told the NewSpace crowd that Blue Origin was “very much aligned” with NASA’s 2024 plan — which he put in the context of this week’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.
“We’ve been working with NASA as part of this initial study that they’ve laid out,” he said. “We’re very excited to be getting going, actually moving forward on landing by 2024. We look back at how Apollo did it, and it’s so inspiring to see how that happened.”
The Blue Moon development effort is taking advantage of tools that weren’t available in the Apollo era. Zeitouni said Blue Origin is using machine learning and artificial intelligence, as well as additive manufacturing and computer-controlled cutting tools, to design and fabricate space hardware.
In addition to Blue Moon, Blue Origin is conducting uncrewed tests of a suborbital spaceship known as New Shepard, which could start flying people to space and back as early as this year. New Shepard hardware is built at the company’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and tested in West Texas.
Blue Origin is also gearing up to build a reusable orbital-class rocket called New Glenn at a Florida factory, and launch it from Cape Canaveral starting in 2021.
The company’s workforce has been steadily growing as the various programs ramp up. “When I joined two years ago, we were at somewhere around 1,000 people,” Zeitouni said. “Now we’re at 2,200 and still growing.”
Correction for 6 p.m. PT July 19: We’ve revised the story to make clear that the six minutes of firing time was cumulative for the BE-7 engine, rather than representing a single firing that lasted six minutes.
Update for 12:15 p.m. PT July 22: NASA has issued its draft solicitation under NEXTStep 2’s Appendix H for human-carrying lunar lander concepts. The space agency notes that its current architecture calls for a three-stage system — including a transfer element, a descent element and an ascent element. However, it’s open to other architectures (presumably including SpaceX’s Starship).
Responses are due Aug. 2, and NASA says it may revise its draft solicitation based on the comments received. NASA says contracts could be awarded by as early as November, but for now, the anticipated initial allocation is listed as “$TBD million.”