On Sept. 15, Blue Origin announced plans to manufacture and launch their own reusable vehicles from Complex 36 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. In the announcement on their website, Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos stated he was “inspired by the giant
Saturn V missions that roared to life from these shores.”
Complex 36 was built in 1961 at a cost of $6.5 million dollars. Initially, the Air Force needed this infrastructure to launch their Atlas Centaur payloads into orbit. In 1963, the Complex was transferred to NASA to build a second pad. These two pads were subsequently named 36A and 36B. The second launch site was completed in 1964.
Complex 36 is home to many “firsts.” Combined, the launch pads supported the Atlas Centaur and Surveyor missions, which included the first US spacecraft to land softly on the Moon. The pads also provided launch capabilities for the Mariner series, including the first US spacecraft to travel to other planets, specifically Venus and Mars. Pioneer 10, the first to travel through the asteroid belt, was also launched from Complex 36.
The last launch from the Complex was in 2005. Subsequently, the site has stood silent for over a decade. “We can’t wait to fix that,” Bezos said.
Bezos added “You will hear us before you see us.” Blue Origin’s American-made BE-4 engine, the powerplant for their new vehicle, will be acceptance tested at Cape Canaveral in the next few years. Blue Origin says the BE-4 will also power the first flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan rocket. ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
The Vulcan will launch no earlier than 2019, and ULA has stated it will not decide on an engine vendor until 2016.
Blue Origin will likely have to modernize the infrastructure at Complex 36 to accommodate for their new engine, which is powered by liquid methane. Many rockets employ RP-1 fuel, such as the Atlas V from ULA.
Last year, Congress passed legislation that required ULA to use US-built engines by the end of the decade. Engine manufacturer, Aerojet Rocketdyne recently offered to purchase ULA for $2 billion dollars. Coincidentally, Aerojet manufactures the engines that power the Delta IV and the upper stage of the Atlas V. The first stage of the Atlas V is powered by a Russian engine, unrelated to Aerojet.
On Sept. 16, Boeing rejected Aerojet’s unsolicited offer to purchase ULA. Todd Blecher, a spokesperson for Boeing, reassured the company’s investment in ULA. “Boeing is committed to ULA and its business, and to continued leadership in all aspects of space, as evidenced by the agreement announcement last week with Blue Origin.”
The announcement Blecher referenced was a Sept. 10 agreement to expand Blue Origin’s production capability for the Vulcan system. Aerojet is currently working on its own product, called the AR1. However, Aerojet’s development is two years behind Blue Origin, according to ULA officials. Julie Van Kleeck, Aerojet’s Vice President of Space Programs, reiterated the company’s commitment to its product saying, “We’re investing pretty heavily in the engine right now, and we’re on schedule to get a preliminary design review.”
With an estimated net worth of $50 billion, according to Forbes, Bezos financed many of Blue Origin’s technical developments with personal funds. Aerojet will continue to work with internal company funds, but their engine’s planned readiness date in 2019 will be contingent upon outside investors.