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SpaceX wins out over Blue Origin for moon landings

In a surprise move that was dictated by budget constraints, NASA is awarding $2.89 billion to SpaceX alone for the development of its Starship super-rocket as a lunar landing system for astronauts — leaving out Alabama-based Dynetics as well as a team led by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

If all proceeds according to plan, SpaceX would demonstrate Starship’s capabilities during an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface, and then follow up with a crewed demonstration mission for NASA’s Artemis moon program in the mid-2020s.

“NASA’s Artemis program is well underway, as you can see, and with our lander award today, landing the next two American astronauts on the moon is well within our reach,” Steve Jurczyk, the space agency’s acting administrator, said today during a teleconference announcing the award.

In a tweet, SpaceX said it was “humbled to help @NASAArtemis usher in a new era of human space exploration.”

NASA also plans to set up a follow-up competition for future crewed lunar landings that would be provided as a commercial service. Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that could serve as another “on-ramp” for Blue Origin’s team and Dynetics.

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Stand-in spacefliers rehearse Blue Origin roles

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture flew a mannequin into space today during the 15th test flight for its New Shepard reusable suborbital spaceship — but for the first time, living, breathing humans practiced all the steps leading up to launch and following landing.

“This is as real as it can get without … sending them on a trip to space,” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said during the countdown to liftoff from Blue Origin’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

Bezos was more succinct in an Instagram post from the scene. “It’s time,” the billionaire wrote. He followed up on that assessment with Blue Origin’s motto: “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”

In addition to testing the rocket and rehearsing the on-the-ground procedures for flying passengers, Blue Origin provided a sneak peek at its arrangements for future crewed spaceflights.

During the actual test flight, New Shepard went through its standard mission profile, rising to a height beyond 100 kilometers (62 miles), the “Karman Line” that serves as the international boundary of outer space. The capsule’s maximum altitude was 347,574 feet (105 kilometers).

At the end of the trip, New Shepard’s booster touched down autonomously on its landing pad, while the uncrewed crew capsule landed with the aid of its parachutes and retro rockets.

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Cosmic Space

A new SpaceShip and a falling Starship

Virgin Galactic rolls out the successor to SpaceShipTwo, debris from SpaceX’s failed Starship test flight sparks questions from the FAA, and Blue Origin seeks to expand its rocket manufacturing site in Florida. Get the details on the Web:

Say hello to SpaceShip III

The next iteration of Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered space plane looks like a shinier version of SpaceShipTwo, but Space News reports that the structure of the vehicle has been adjusted to make it lighter and more efficient as well as easier to build, inspect and maintain.

The first craft in the SpaceShip III line has been christened VSS Imagine, with flight tests due to begin this summer. The second SpaceShip III, VSS Inspire, is under construction in Mojave, Calif. Virgin Galactic is still considering whether to build a third III or move ahead to a next-generation space vehicle. Meanwhile, SpaceShipTwo (a.k.a. VSS Unity) is due to take on another flight test in May, eventually leading up to suborbital space tours for paying customers.

Starship breakup sparks questions

Today wasn’t a good day for SpaceX’s Starship flight test program. The company’s latest super-rocket prototype, SN11, was launched amid obscuring fog at the Boca Chica manufacturing and test facility in South Texas. The craft blasted through the murk to an altitude of 10 kilometers, as planned, but “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reported in a tweet. According to Ars Technica, there were indications of trouble with the rocket’s belly flop maneuver on the way down.

The result? SN11 broke up into pieces, including lots of pieces that rained down on the area around the launch pad. “At least the crater is in the right place!” Musk tweeted. He said the problem should be corrected for SN15, which is due to roll out to the launch pad in a few days. The Verge reports that the Federal Aviation Administration will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of the anomaly, and that investigators want more information about the reports of falling debris.

Blue Origin to expand rocket factory

Blue Origin New Glenn rocket factory
Blue Origin has its New Glenn rocket factory in Florida. (Blue Origin Photo)

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning a major expansion of its Florida manufacturing site, the Orlando Business Journal reports. Development plans filed with Florida state officials on March 26 indicate that the company will expand into 70 acres just south of its existing Cape Canaveral campus. The acreage is an abandoned citrus grove that’s part of NASA’s property at Kennedy Space Center and is being leased to Blue Origin, according to the Orlando Business Journal. (Orlando’s WFTV picked up the report.)

Blue Origin hasn’t announced a construction timeline for the project it calls “South Campus Phase 2.” The centerpiece of the campus is a 750,000-square-foot manufacturing complex where Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket is being built. New Glenn is currently due to make its launch debut in late 2022.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin will give NASA a spin in lunar gravity

With backing from NASA, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture will upgrade its New Shepard suborbital spaceship to provide lunar levels of gravity for future experiments.

“Humanity has been dreaming about artificial gravity since the earliest days of spaceflight,” Erika Wagner, Blue Origin’s director of payloads for New Shepard, said today in a news release. “It’s exciting to be partnering with NASA to create this one-of-a-kind capability to explore the science and technology we will need for future human space exploration.”

Parabolic-flight aircraft are able to provide a spectrum of reduced-gravity environments — such as the 17 percent of Earth gravity that people and payloads would experience on the moon. Similar gravity levels can be produced using centrifuges on suborbital spacecraft. But those methods have their limits. For example, the dose of lunar gravity amounts to just seconds at a time during a parabolic flight, and the centrifuges can accommodate only small payloads.

In contrast, Blue Origin’s method would turn the entire New Shepard capsule into a centrifuge for up to two minutes or more. The capsule’s reaction control thrusters would generate a spin amounting to 11 rotations per minute during the free-fall portion of the flight. The resulting centrifugal force would be equivalent to the moon’s gravity.

Blue Origin expects to provide the rotational capability starting in late 2022. Testing payloads under lunar conditions should help pave the way for NASA’s Artemis moon exploration program, which is due to send astronauts to the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin delays New Glenn rocket’s first flight

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it’s targeting the fourth quarter of 2022 for the first flight of its orbital-class New Glenn rocket — which marks a major schedule shift.

The company had previously planned to conduct its first New Glenn launch from Florida by the end of this year, although it was becoming increasingly clear that timeline wouldn’t hold.

In a blog posting, Blue Origin said its team “has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.”

Blue Origin noted that the updated timeline follows the U.S. Space Force to stop its support for the New Glenn development effort as part of its procurement program for national security launches. That support, which could have added up to $500 million, was closed out at the end of last year.

The Space Force ended up choosing United Launch Alliance and SpaceX for the next round of national security launches. Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told Space News that losing out on that round of launch contracts represented a $3 billion hit to anticipated revenue, and forced the company to “re-baseline” its development plans.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin shows off a pathfinder lunar lander

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is testing a full-scale prototype of its cargo lunar lander, as part of its campaign to get a jump on heavy-duty deliveries to the moon.

In a video posted today to Twitter and Instagram, members of Blue Origin’s lander development team provided a status report.

The pathfinder lander has been taking shape at the factory that Blue Origin recently opened in Huntsville, Ala. That factory is responsible for manufacturing the descent element for a human-capable landing system, as well as the BE-4 engines for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

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GeekWire

Will space become Jeff Bezos’ final frontier?

What will Amazon without Jeff Bezos as CEO look like? It could look a lot like Bezos’ biggest personal passion project — Blue Origin, which is working to send people and payloads on space trips ranging from suborbital hops to the moon and beyond.

There’s already speculation that Bezos’ decision to step back from the CEO role and serve as Amazon’s executive chairman will free him up to devote more time to Blue Origin. After all, he’s basically come around to admitting that he founded Amazon in part to earn the billions he’d need for his own space effort.

But Bezos has picked up a lot of other passions since his days in Princeton, when he headed the local chapter of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space.

That’s reflected in the email he sent to Amazon employees, announcing a tectonic shift for the world’s richest individual (at least as of today … sorry, Elon Musk).

“As Exec Chair I will stay engaged in important Amazon initiatives but also have the time and energy I need to focus on the Day 1 Fund, the Bezos Earth Fund, Blue Origin, The Washington Post, and my other passions,” Bezos wrote. “I’ve never had more energy, and this isn’t about retiring. I’m super passionate about the impact I think these organizations can have.”

The order in which Bezos lays out his list may well reflect the priority of his passions, especially considering that he’s a seasoned list-maker.

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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos kicks back with a fiery rocket engine test

If you’re hanging out in West Texas during a pandemic, there are few fireworks shows more thrilling than a test firing of your very own rocket engine. At least that’s the way Blue Origin’s billionaire founder sees it.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin aces rehearsal for crewed space trips

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture put the New Shepard spaceship that’s destined to fly people on suborbital trips through its first uncrewed test flight today — and by all appearances, the practice run was a success.

The reusable booster and its attached crew capsule lifted off from Blue Origin’s Launch Site 1 in West Texas at about 11:19 a.m. CT (9:19 a.m. PT), after a countdown that was delayed 20 minutes due to concerns about midlevel winds.

“Look at her go!” launch commentator Ariane Cornell said.

This was the first outing for this particular spaceship. The capsule has been dubbed RSS First Step, with RSS standing for “reusable spaceship.” During a string of 13 previous test flights going back to 2015, Blue Origin has flown two other reusable capsules — but First Step is the first one that’s fully configured to take up to six people to the edge of space and back.

If the program goes as hoped, Blue Origin could start flying people later this year.

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GeekWire

Blue Origin gets set to fly a spaceship built for people

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to live-stream the first test flight of its first passenger-friendly space capsule on Thursday.

If all goes according to plan, Blue Origin will launch a never-before-flown New Shepard crew capsule and booster from its West Texas facility on an uncrewed suborbital space trip as early as 9:45 a.m. CT (7:45 a.m. PT), with coverage streamed via Blue Origin’s website and YouTube.

Coverage is due to begin 30 minutes before launch, with the precise timing dependent on weather and technical readiness.