Blue Update: New Glenn is testing hardware at the cape as New Shepard nears return to flight –

Blue Origin recently completed several milestones in its programs as it nears the debut flight of its New Glenn rocket. Successful launches of the BE-4 under the Vulcan rocket, pad and infrastructure changes, and contract award for the Artemis V lander have put Blue Origin in a better position than before, with a delayed rocket and a struggle to secure contracts. Current efforts also include the possibility of a fully reusable New Glenn.


Work on the Vertical Assembly Building and Reef Pathfinder Building has progressed in recent months. The Reef Pathfinder building is related to the assembly and work on Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef Space Station and is located on the company’s Cape campus.

Orbital Reef is a space station built by Blue Origin and Sierra Space. Operations are scheduled to begin in 2027. Blue Origin will primarily contribute to the station’s launch services, as New Glenn will be the rocket used to place the station in orbit and to transport people and cargo to it once it is operational.

The Reef Explorer Building (left) and Vertical Assembly Building (right) under construction at the headland. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

While it is unclear what the exact purpose of the vertical assembly building is, it will likely be related to New Glenn’s construction efforts at the headland. The building features a fully constructed structure at this point. Blue has not yet confirmed the building’s exact purpose in the updated plans.

Approved development plans show that Blue Origin is expected to add more buildings to the south side of its Exploration Park campus. This includes a chemical processing plant, composite assembly building, and more. These buildings have yet to start construction.

Head test

Blue Origin recently began conducting fairing drop tests again, after initially discontinuing these tests in January. Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFR) and Maritime Safety Information Bulletins (MSIB) were issued, confirming drop tests near the Cape between 27 and 30 June.

In these tests, a helicopter is used to drop one half of a New Glenn payload fairing, to crash and be picked up by the ocean. These tests are the first stages of preparing the fairing for potential recovery on upcoming New Glenn missions, similar to the approach SpaceX has taken to recovering payload fairings. The tests have not yet been confirmed at the time of writing.

In addition, a New Glenn upper stage test tank has been located in the second stage tank cleaning and testing facility at the Blues Exploration Park campus. It is unclear what type of testing was conducted with the test tank, as this could have been anything from fit checks or tank cleanliness to pressure tests. A tank related to the first stage has been identified in the tank cleaning and testing facility, with similar uncertainty as to where this item is located in the testing process.

A New Glenn second stage test tank in the 2CAT building. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Another test conducted by Blue Origin was the fully vertical erector erector of the New Glenn Transporter at Space Launch Complex 36 (SLC-36). It had additional hardware installed than last seen. This included a circular frame at the base of the T/E with a large hexagonal cutout in the center. This frame was also visible in previous renders published by the company.

Of course, Cape Blue Origin’s largest facility test project is its reusable second-phase development program, also called Project Jarvis. The Jarvis test tanks were built and tested in the tent area next to the SLC-36, where they were sighted with warhead tanks and normal tanks.

NSF’s recent flyover also spotted ring sections for a possible new Jarvis tank. This development could see New Glenn become one of the world’s first fully reusable launch vehicles, with SpaceX also targeting full reusability with its Starship program.

Several tests could be conducted using the newly built test rig at the Glenn Stage 1 test area next to the pad. The area is linked to Ground Support Equipment (GSE) tanks and could play a role in Blue Origin’s ongoing first phase tank testing efforts at the Cape.

BE-4 successfully fired under Vulcan

According to reports from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin, the BE-4 engine performed perfectly during the readiness-to-fly (FRF) launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket. While the rocket may not fly in 2023 due to problems with the Centaur upper stage, this test erases Blue Origin’s contributions to the rocket for flight. The same engines will be used to power the New Glenn first stage.

Two BE-4 engines fired under Vulcan. (Credit: ULA)

Blue didn’t confirm whether similar specs will be used for the Vulcan and New Glenn BE-4, as the initial Vulcan rockets won’t pursue a reusable first stage engine. The new Glenn will be rigged for reusability from the start, based on information provided by Blue Origin, so a spec difference is a possibility.

Contracts and Artemis V

NASA recently awarded the Artemis V lander contract to the National Team, led by Blue Origin. This represents the largest contract Blue Origin has ever won, at over three billion dollars. Blue will also invest a significant amount of money in the construction of its lander, to be ready for the third manned moon landing mission of the Artemis program, currently planned around 2029.

The lander will be capable of delivering 20 tons in a reusable configuration to the lunar surface and will be launched aboard a New Glenn rocket. Lockheed Martin’s cislunar transporter will refuel the lander in orbit. Artemis III and IV landing missions are expected to use SpaceX’s spacecraft as landing vehicles.

The new Shepard returns to the air

New Shepard was grounded after a failure during unmanned flight NS-23 in September 2022. During that launch, the BE-3 engine nozzle failed, which resulted in a loss of control and ultimately, flight disruption. Since then, Blue Origin has been working to restart New Shepard flight operations, and according to an interview with Bob Smith at the Financial Times’ Investing in Space event, the company appears poised to resume operations of the suborbital rocket in the coming weeks.

New Shepard performs an abort of mission NS-23. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Once a date for New Shepard’s return to the air is confirmed, the campaign for mission 24 of the New Shepard program, which has so far suffered only one major anomaly, will begin.

(Main image: National teams lunar lander render. Credit: Blue Origin)

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