Blue Origin is delaying the debut launch of its massive, centerpiece rocket New Glenn to late 2022, the company announced Thursday, citing a key Pentagon contract it lost out on to rival firms SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as the reason for the delay.
New Glenn is a massive, partially reusable heavy-lift rocket designed to launch anything from national security payloads and commercial satellites. Its first flight was previously slated for sometime in 2021.
“The current target for New Glenn’s maiden flight is Q4 2022,” the company said in a statement on Thursday. “The Blue Origin team has been in contact with all of our customers to ensure this baseline meets their launch needs.”
Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin’s founder and currently the world’s richest man, has invested billions into the New Glenn program, which has involved the construction of sprawling rocket production facilities in Cape Canaveral, Florida and an extensive renovation to the Space Coast’s Launch Complex 36, which Blue Origin leased in 2015.
The company bid for hefty launch contracts under the Air Force’s next-generation national security launch program, which guaranteed two winning rocket companies multibillion-dollar contracts and a share of all Pentagon launches between 2022 to 2027. The Air Force announced its decision last year — Blue Origin lost out to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin).
That loss “was a big hit for us,” Jarrett Jones, Blue Origin’s senior vice president for New Glenn, told SpaceNews, claiming it cost Blue Origin up to $3 billion. The design of New Glenn was partially tailored to send Pentagon satellites to space, and Blue Origin executives “had to consider the economics” when the Air Force went with other companies instead, Jones said.
“We hope to launch [national security] payloads in the future, and remain committed to serving the U.S. national defense mission,” a Blue Origin statement said.
Blue Origin received $255 million of a $500 million award from the Air Force as part of a precursor program to aid New Glenn development. As planned, the company was cut off from the award’s full amount after losing in the subsequent program.
But Bezos, unshackled from Amazon after announcing his decision to step down as CEO, is now expected to ramp up his involvement in managing Blue Origin, which he founded as a passion project in 2000. He said in 2017 he was liquidating $1 billion a year in Amazon stock to help fund Blue Origin.
Though it has yet to reach orbit and has fallen well behind SpaceX, which Elon Musk founded in 2002, Blue Origin in recent years has stepped up its competitive footing in the space industry. It’s currently leading a team of established defense companies in a bid to provide NASA’s next ride to the moon with its human lunar lander Blue Moon. SpaceX is also vying for that award with its Starship rocket system.
Another crucial business line for the company is its liquid BE-4 rocket engine that powers New Glenn. That engine will also power United Launch Alliance’s rocket, Vulcan — the same one that beat New Glenn to a lucrative Pentagon contract. Vulcan is on target for a late 2021 debut launch. And after some development hiccups last year, Blue Origin is expected to ship the flight-ready BE-4 engines to ULA in mid-2021 to keep Vulcan on schedule.
In the meantime, Blue Origin is taking its time with New Glenn (its motto, Gradatim Ferociter, is Latin for “Step by step, ferociously”). A test version of a New Glenn first stage briefly emerged from the company’s Florida facilities earlier this month, giving rocket enthusiasts one of the first major peaks at some New Glenn hardware.
And the company’s new Tank Cleaning and Testing facility, toured in a video it tweeted on Thursday, has become one of the only buildings tall enough to share the Cape Canaveral skyline with NASA’s behemoth Vehicle Assembly Building, which stands tall a few miles away.
Blue Origin said its expanse on Florida’s Space Coast has led to “more than 600 jobs” and represents an investment of $2.5 billion, which includes $1 billion to revamp Launch Complex 36, “which is nearing completion.”