Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin has officially started construction on a Huntsville, Alabama facility that will produce engines for its New Glenn two-stage, partially reusable launch system, as well as the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan Centaur, Engadget reported.
According to AL.com, the $200 million, 46-acre facility in Huntsville—
sometimes called “Rocket City” for its long history with spaceflight projects—will employ some 300-400 workers to build both BE-3 and BE-4 engines, and is planned to be “highly automated.” Parts of the manufacturing process will be additive, i.e. 3D-printed.
“The engine has a lot of additive parts,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told AL.com. “It has some very unique cladding and different ways we produce that engine. One of the things that’s not always obvious is that we at Blue Origin are a ‘make’ house. We’re not an integrator. We literally make everything that we have. We don’t have a lot of ‘build to spec.’”
“All of our things are ‘build to print,’” Smith added. “Everything that you’ll see that’s on that engine is actually going to be built from effectively bar stock or powder that we put into that facility.”
Smith added that the factory should be capable of producing “dozens” of rocket engines annually.
Blue Origin is planning on running the first crewed test of its existing New Shepard suborbital vehicle in 2019, while it hopes for New Glenn’s first flight to space to take place by 2021. ULA, a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is planning on having the Vulcan Centaur replace its current line of Atlas and Delta rockets, the former of which uses Russian rocket engines, AL.com noted. ULA’s selection of the BE-4 for that system in September 2018 was a critical factor in Blue Origin’s decision to build the factory in Alabama.
According to SpaceNews, the BE-3 variant to be made at the facility (the BE-3U) is to be used for the New Glenn’s second stage. Smith also announced that Blue Origin is working on an agreement with NASA to take over Building 4670 at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville for acceptance testing.
The Seattle Times noted that both the New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur systems have been selected by the U.S. Air Force for future national security missions, which could “end the U.S.’ current dependency on using Russian RD-180 engines for critical national security launches.”