Blue Origin lays out ambitious plan for rocket engine production as it opens Alabama factory

Blue Origin ribbon-cutting in Huntsville
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith wields a scissors alongside other VIPs during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the company’s rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Ala. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture opened the doors of its engine factory in America’s Rocket City today, and promised that next-generation BE-4 engines would be rolling off the production line within a few months.

It was up to Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith to cut the ribbon on the company’s 350,000-square-foot, $200 million factory in Huntsville, Ala., where rocket engines for America’s space effort have been developed since the days of Wernher von Braun.

“We couldn’t be prouder to call this our home for engine production,” Smith said.

The very first BE-4 engines are being made at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., however. Tooling equipment still has to be set up on the factory floor in Huntsville, and it’ll take until this summer to get the production line up to speed.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

“Congratulations and welcome to the neighborhood!” ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, said in a tweet. “Looking forward to seeing those BE-4s rolling out the front door and into Decatur.”

The BE-4 engine, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel and can deliver up to 550,000 pounds of thrust, is destined to power not only ULA’s semi-reusable Vulcan rocket, but Blue Origin’s reusable New Glenn booster as well. Both launch vehicles are due to start flying next year.

A hydrogen-fueled engine optimized for use in the vacuum of space, known as the BE-3U, will be made in Huntsville as well. That breed of engine will power the New Glenn’s upper stage with up to 160,000 pounds of thrust. (For what it’s worth, “BE” stands for Blue Engine.)

The engines will be tested near the factory, at Test Stand 4670, a historic site at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center where engines for the space shuttle and the Saturn V rocket were put through their paces. Blue Origin is spending tens of millions of dollars to refurbish the site.

“We’re so excited to be taking that back over, because it has not roared to life since 1998,” Smith said.

Once the factory reaches full production, dozens of BE-4 and BE-3U engines will be produced annually in Huntsville, Blue Origin said in a fact sheet.

Smith noted that the Huntsville factory has been declared open for business just a little more than a year after Blue Origin’s groundbreaking ceremony. “You can see we can get some things done really quickly,” he said.

Alabama isn’t the only place where things are moving quickly for Blue Origin.

Just last month, the company opened up a new headquarters building in Kent that’s been named after the late space-settlement visionary Gerard O’Neill. In Florida, Blue Origin is ramping up its New Glenn rocket factory and significantly upgrading Launch Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for its use.

Meanwhile, the suborbital New Shepard spaceship is due for several more uncrewed tests at Blue Origin’s sprawling West Texas spaceport, in preparation for the first flights to carry people. Those crewed test flights are expected to start carrying Blue Origin employees later this year. Eventually, the company plans to take on commercial passengers, although it’s not yet taking reservations or advertising a ticket price.

Blue Origin is also developing a lunar lander concept known as Blue Moon, as part of a collaboration with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. The hydrogen-powered engine for Blue Moon, known as the BE-7, is built in Kent and tested in Alabama.

NASA is considering Blue Moon as well as other lander concepts for development funding under the aegis of the space agency’s Artemis program, which aims to put astronauts on the lunar surface by as early as 2024. A decision is expected within the next month or two.

“We’re getting ready to hopefully receive an award for NASA for the Artemis program as head of a national team,” Smith said.

Blue Origin was founded by Bezos 20 years ago, but the company’s profile has risen significantly over just the last few years. In 2016, Bezos said the Kent headquarters was “busting out of the seams” with 600 employees. Since then, the workforce has risen to nearly 3,000 employees — and the Huntsville operation is expected to bring more than 300 jobs to the local economy.

“”We’re growing very fast,” Smith said.

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