Thursday, October 22, 2020

Air Force Stops Funding Blue Origin's New Glenn Development

In a move I hadn't heard of, Space News reported Monday that when the Air Force selected their two main launch services providers for the next five years, they stopped a previous contract that Blue Origin had won in 2018.  Blue Origin is protesting that call.
The Air Force in August selected United Launch Alliance and SpaceX as its launch providers for the next five years. Blue Origin competed for the job but lost and, as a result, the Air Force plans to terminate a $500 million contract Blue Origin received in 2018 to advance the development of its New Glenn rocket.

The company is moving forward with New Glenn with the goal to debut the vehicle in 2021 and pursue commercial work, but it is trying to make the case to the Air Force that it should continue to fund the vehicle and the ground infrastructure that it would need to be certified for national security missions.  

“We’re discussing with the Air Force the path forward for certification,” Megan Mitchell, Blue Origin’s director of government and legislative affairs, told SpaceNews.

The Air Force chose ULA and SpaceX over Northrup Grumman and Blue Origin.  Back in August, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper said that the service planned to terminate the LSAs with Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman (LSA = Launch Services Agreement), explaining that the Air Force didn't have the money to continue funding those agreements.  Naturally, the Air Force started to prepare for legal challenges, which seems to be the norm.
The purpose of the agreements was to help Phase 2 competitors pay for launch vehicle development and infrastructure. Blue Origin received $500 million; Northrop Grumman $792 million and ULA $967 million. The funds were to be spread out through 2024, and the Air Force from the beginning said the LSAs would be terminated with those companies that did not win a Phase 2 procurement contract.
Blue Origin argues that they should be funded in the interest of national security. Megan Mitchell, Blue Origin’s director of government and legislative affairs, told SpaceNews.

Mitchell said she could not disclose how much of the $500 million from the LSA contract has been invested so far in New Glenn and ground infrastructure.  “But I can tell you we had begun development of national security space-unique infrastructure required to meet national security needs. We also completed the initial segment of the national security space launch certification process, the assessment phase,” she said.

If the Air Force decided to continue funding New Glenn, “they would get a third certified launch provider strengthening assured access to space for critical national security space assets,” said Mitchell.

Development of the New Glenn will continue.  Blue Origin has lined up paying customers for satellite deliveries to orbit, but this is undoubtedly a setback for the company.  They also have paying customers (United Launch Alliance) for their BE-4 methane/LOX engines.  It has always struck me as an interesting rocket.  It was going to be (still may become) the first reusable, orbital class rocket powered by methane-oxygen engines, and in the size class of the Saturn V. 


  1. I'm not much for the sort of "SpaceX uber alles" attitude you see on sites like Spacenews. I think that our country does have an interest in preventing winner-take-all scenarios and ensuring that there remains competition in the aerospace industry. Things collapsing into megacorporation duopolies is how we've gotten some of our current mess.

    However amazing SpaceX is, not everyone can work for SpaceX. (and unlike the SpaceX uber alles crowd, I don't mean that to impugn the competence of those that "don't make the cut".) Not everyone can live in Compton Los Angeles. Not everyone can work 80 hour weeks until they burn out 1.5 years later. And there should be a place somewhere in industry for those engineers that isn't slowly going mad in the bowels of an end-stage bureuacracy. There shouldn't ONLY BE ONE.

    We used to have a massive, varied, vibrant aerospace world back in teh 60s. I'd like to see a return to that. Because right now, an entire generation is having their competence wasted by end-stage bureaucracies like Boeing or ULA,or the fact that the industry is full and no one wants them.

    However, we're not going to get there from here by pouring $infinite down a fully bureaucratically converged megacorporation like Boeing or ULA. And I have to wonder just what is up with Blue Origin. Bezos could fund a program to plunk an astronaut on Mars with the roudning error on amazon pennies. His company must have some sort of internal management problem if all they have to show after all this time is a powerpoint rocket.


  2. I've been reading history and biographies recently: On the Wright Brothers, Simon Lake, early aerospace pioneers, and the sort of industrial, engineering, and scientific world that existed from the turn of the century onward. One of the things that struck me was how many of these people were their own people: Professionally independent, and able to pursue the sort of work that they found meaningful, whether as individuals or within firms like Lockheed or Northrup (back in the day).

    I've often said before that the Wright Bros couldn't have invented the airplane if they worked in someone else's bicycle shop. (And the biography drives that point home.) No factory helot with a Taylorist standing behind them with a stopwatch could take summers off to travel to what at the time was the end of nowhere to run glider experiments. Or the time to tinker endlessly in workshops that they cleared and assembled and built as if it were a second-nature thing to throw up a building and move in machinery.

    It seems like there isn't nearly as much slack in our lives in modern times to deviate from the norm and pursue personal projects. Most people, with the exceptions of those with independent wealth like Elon Musk, can't afford the time anymore.

    Perhaps Blue Origins dysfunction is that Bezos doesn't really care all that much, and his men aren't free to follow an intrinsic motivation to pursue the mission. That he's using it as a vehicle to chase federal funds as if he needs the money seems to indicate this.


  3. Ah, Blue Origins, long on talk, short on real achievements. Same with Virgin Galactic, Sierra Nevada and so many others.

    I understand fully why the AF wants to not fund BO. BO has missed target dates, missed achievements, been slow to respond to questions.

    SpaceX, on the other hand, has from Day 1 been very open. Their successful lawsuit against the AF over launch status succeeded because SpaceX had a working rocket to launch with.

    Blue Origins does not.

    And that's an interesting graphic. Love to see Starship et al added to it, considering one of the Starship variants, and probably the first to launch, will be Starship Cargo.

    Back to BO, where are the test hops, the testing of tanks and manufacturing processes and the development of proof vehicles and such?

    Bueller? Bueller?

    On the other hand, I can pull up 4-5 youstubes channels that give us direct access to SpaceX achievements on Starship et al, including video of the complex at Boca Chica from both ground and from air, and pundits asking Elon questions and Elon answering.

    And then...

    I wonder how much the AF cancelling the contract has to do with transferring of space assets and space programs to the Space Force? Could this be the beginning of Space Force taking over, you know, space things?

    (On the other hand, I've been suspicious of Blue Origins for a while. Their New Shephard vehicle has yet to carry people, and the BE-4 engine, while 'nice' has yet to power a single vehicle, even though it has been under development around the same length of time as SpaceX's Raptor, which has so far powered several hopping vehicles.

    Seriously, is anyone taking Blue Origins seriously? If I was ULA, I'd be seeing if Musk was interested in selling some Raptors or Merlins.

  4. I think MadRocketSci is on to something. Upon opening this post, the 1st thing I did was look up the CV of Megan Mitchell. Her CV is impressive. But it is littered with government employment. Knowing who's who only goes so far, especially in today's more streamlined administerial architecture in a swift moving industry. Bouncing from public to private to public employment is less advantageous now than in the past. This new phase in space exploration is become ever more nimble.

    1. Actually, my first thought, even before looking at Mitchell's CV, was 'who did she/they piss off?' Perhaps Blue Origin's liason with .gov has worn thin. After all, .gov is famous for throwing money around, irrespective of the viability of a given project.

    2. Every time I see contracts awarded, SpaceX seems to come in at the bottom of the award amounts, so it surprised me that (in the second link) they said SpaceX got awarded almost the same amount for one mission that ULA got for two:

      "What nobody expected was the price tag for SpaceX’s first Phase 2 mission awarded on Aug. 7.

      SpaceX was awarded a $316 million contract to launch USSF-67, a mission scheduled for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2022. ULA was awarded a $337 million contract to launch two missions — USSF-51 and USSF-106 — "

      I'm going to assume there's some infrastructure they'll need to build that ULA already has. This is the only time I can recall where they didn't get substantially less their competitors.

      Re: Megan Mitchell - I didn't look, but is there evidence of going back and forth between regulatory agencies and the companies they regulate? The classic industry/government revolving door.

  5. "[New Glenn] was going to be (still may become) the first reusable, orbital class rocket powered by methane-oxygen engines, and in the size class of the Saturn V."

    I'm afraid that honor is going to SpaceX. We will see S/N8 launch very soon (within two or three weeks), and SH is being constructed now. The only real goalpost to get across is how well their heat shield concept works, and since it's different than anything ever tried before we'll just have to see how good their simulations are.

    Blue Origin is a vanity project for a bored billionaire who wants to pretend he's a new Boeing or Lockheed or Grumman.

    Yes, I'm a SpaceX fanboi. Here endeth the epistle.

    1. I expect the Starship to be the first to make orbit, but since BO is so closed about what they're doing, I have no idea what sort of shape the New Glenn is. I saw a blurb about it being partially built. The work SpaceX is doing at Boca Chica is genuinely dangerous and something bad enough could affect if Starship ever achieves Musk's goals.

      The Starship/SuperHeavy is bigger than the Saturn V by 30 feet or so. IIRC, it's 395' vs 365 or close to that.

  6. Late to the conversation, I agree with Malatrope about Blue Origin. I think they would have stayed in the running if they were producing something but they just aren't producing. If Jeff Bezos put even half as much energy into getting BO's vehicles developed as Elon Musk puts into SpaceX, the contract might still be there. We do need to have multiple entities in the launch business but they need to be doing something and not just collecting money.