SNC and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin show off hardware at Colorado’s Space Symposium

Buzz Aldrin and Mark SirangeloBuzz Aldrin and Mark Sirangelo
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin and Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Mark Sirangelo get an early look at SNC’s Dream Chaser atmospheric test plane. (SNC Photo)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. —  A year after Blue Origin put its New Shepard rocket booster on public display for the first time, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space venture has brought its BE-4 rocket engine here for one of the nation’s premier space conferences.

But this time, Colorado-based Sierra Nevada Corp. is taking up at least as much of the spotlight at the 34th Space Symposium with the prototype for its Dream Chaser mini-space shuttle.

The 30-foot-long Dream Chaser engineering test vehicle executed what’s likely to be its final flight last November, and was trucked from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California to Colorado Springs for this week’s event.

A space-worthy Dream Chaser is currently under construction. It’s due to fly uncrewed missions to the International Space Station starting in late 2020, under the terms of a cargo resupply contract with NASA.

“SNC is thrilled to have a venue for people to see firsthand what a remarkable piece of engineering it is,” Eren Ozmen, president and co-owner of Sierra Nevada Corp., said in a news release.  “SNC is proud to bring a runway-landing vehicle back to the space landscape.”

The Dream Chaser is designed for vertical launches on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket or similar vehicles, and for horizontal landings reminiscent of the space shuttle fleet’s touchdowns. The prototype on display in Colorado served a function similar to that of the shuttle Enterprise, which tested the craft’s aerodynamics but wasn’t designed to go into space.

After its stint at the Space Symposium, the plane will be given a place of honor in SNC’s 100,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Louisville, Colo.

Blue Origin, meanwhile, has put a BE-4 rocket engine in its own place of honor outside the symposium’s exhibit hall. The engine is destined to power Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket, and it’s the top candidate for United Launch Alliance’s next-generation rocket as well.

BE-4 engineBE-4 engine
Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine is on display in Colorado Springs. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
BE-4 engineBE-4 engine
The BE-4 engine is powered by liquefied natural gas (LNG) with liquid oxygen (LOX) serving as the oxidizer, as indicated by the labels on the front end of the engine. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
BE-4 engineBE-4 engine
The engine’s plumbing is intricate. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

For now, BE-4 engines are being built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and sent down to the company’s West Texas facility for testing. If United Launch Alliance gives its thumbs-up for a bulk buy, BE-4 manufacturing will shift to a $200 million, 200,000-square-foot facility that is to be built in Huntsville, Ala.

The BE-4 is designed to deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust, with liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen serving as the propellants. Seven of the engines would be used on the first stage of the New Glenn rocket, which would be built in and launched from Florida. The first launches for the New Glenn as well as ULA’s Vulcan rocket are currently set for 2020.

Blue Origin is testing a separate suborbital space vehicle known as New Shepard, which makes use of a hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine. During last year’s Space Symposium, Blue Origin showed off a New Shepard booster that was launched on five successful round-trip flights to the edge of space, plus a mockup for its suborbital space capsule. Crewed flight tests are due to begin within the next year, followed by flights for paying passengers.

At last report, the now-retired New Shepard booster is on display at Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket factory in Florida.

SNC is running an “I Saw the Dream Chaser” selfie contest for photographers who document their sightings at the Space Symposium. Check SNC’s website for contest rules and the list of prizes.

Both SNC and Blue Origin will be providing updates on their space programs later this week. Stay tuned for dispatches from GeekWire’s Alan Boyle in Colorado.

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