As Kent-based Blue Origin works with NASA and other companies to get astronauts back on the moon in 2024, it also envisions a future where millions of people live and work in space.
“We want humanity to continue to expand,” said Patrick Zeitouni, Blue Origin’s head of advanced development programs, during closing remarks July 18 at the three-day NewSpace 2019 conference in Renton. “We want to take full advantage of the near limitless resources of the solar system and be able to preserve Earth. We want to have a vibrant space ecosystem and these millions of people living and working in space are enabling that to happen. That is the future that we want to enable.”
Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, expects to complete by the end of the year a 236,000-square-foot headquarters, research and development facility on 31 acres along 76th Avenue South between South 212th Street and South 228th Street. The current facility covers about 260,000 square feet on 26 acres at 21218 76th Ave. S.
The Maryland-based Space Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to opening the space frontier to human settlement as rapidly as possible, put on the conference at the Hyatt Regency on Lake Washington. The conference drew startups, established companies, government agencies, private investors and tech innovators with the focus to grow the commercial space industry as the key enabler to space settlement.
Zeitouni talked for about 35 minutes about Blue Origin’s efforts to help achieve that goal of people living and working in space. He said radical launch reduction cost and the use of in-space resources will help the company build the infrastructure needed.
It’s going to take “systems that are able to launch, land and launch again with minimal amounts of work and effort in between these launches and vehicles that can do so reliably and quickly and over many many flights,” he said.
“Many of you flew here on an airplane, you were not surprised when you landed that we didn’t just throw the plane out,” Zeitouni said to the attendees in the Hyatt’s grand ballroom. “People came on to clean it, refueled it and other people got on the plane and flew someplace else. That’s the place we want to get to in space.”
Blue Origin began flying its New Shepard vehicle in 2015 out of its facility in West Texas. The vehicle is designed and built in Kent. Named after Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to go to space, New Shepard is a reusable suborbital rocket system designed to take astronauts and research payloads past the Kármán line – the internationally recognized boundary of space. The vehicle has had 11 successful unmanned test missions that landed the booster over and over. Eventually, the company will send six astronauts into space on the vehicle.
As far as the goal to rely on in-space resources, Zeitouni shared how now everything goes up and down on the rocket. Instead, Blue Origin wants infrastructure in space.
“You go to Paris on a trip, you don’t take your hotel, water, red wine and croissant with you. … It’s provided and you have a more enjoyable trip and more affordable trip,” he said. “That’s the mindset we have to start going to in space.”
Blue Origin built the New Shepard with eyes toward building a larger vehicle. That has led to the New Glenn, named after John Glenn, who made the first American orbital flight in 1963. The orbital vehicle, currently in development in Florida, will take people and payloads to Earth orbits and beyond out of Blue Origin’s rocket facility at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The first launch is expected to be in 2021.
Similar to New Shepard, the company will use New Glenn in multiple missions.
“We want to fly the same thing over and over, it’s safer and you get more practice with it,” Zeitouni said.
When New Glenn returns to Earth, it will land on a moving ship.
“That’s so we can land in the worst sea states,” he said.
Blue Origin also is working on the Blue Moon lander to deliver large infrastructure payloads with high accuracy to pre-position systems for future missions. The larger variant of Blue Moon has been designed to land an ascent vehicle that will allow the company to return Americans to the moon by 2024. Gene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon as part of Apollo 17 in 1972 before Congress reduced NASA’s budget.
“We’re very excited that we have the support of the administration and NASA of landing a male and female astronaut on the lunar surface by 2024,” Zeitouni said. “We look back about how Apollo did it and it’s so inspiring to see how that happened. It would be the career highlight for all of us to do it.”
With the moon just three days away, Zeitouni said it can be used to set up infrastructure.
“Once we set up infrastructure, we can refuel with local resources, using what have there rather carry everything down and back up again,” he said.
It’s all part of the larger mission.
“We want millions of people to be living and working in space,” Zeitouni said. “We don’t want billions of people on Earth, sort of in mission control, managing them. We want a new model of flight operations. And you can tell it to land on that part of the moon.”
Reaching the company’s goal of people living and working in space has led to many jobs on Earth. Blue Origin has a long list of jobs posted on its website.
“When I joined two years ago, we were at about 1,000 people,” he said. “Now we are at 2,200 and still growing.”
Most of those employees are in Kent, with about 250 working at the New Glenn facility in Florida. Many more employees will be needed with the Kent expansion opening later this year and a new rocket engine factory scheduled to open next year in Alabama.
“We want to put humans in space, millions of them,” Zeitouni said. “We also want humans to be building not just the rockets but a company that can be building rockets. We know it’s going to take a long time to get there.”