A peek inside the Kent headquarters of Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin shows it is making big strides in rocket development, with its serious engineers immersed in a workplace that pays homage to past dreamers about interplanetary travel.
We’ll have to stop calling local space-rocket company Blue Origin “secretive.”
On Tuesday, Amazon boss and space visionary Jeff Bezos pulled back the curtains at his sideline company’s engineering and manufacturing headquarters in Kent, and talked almost nonstop for more than four intense and energetic hours.
As a series of young Blue Origin engineers explained the intricacies of their impressive rocketry hardware, Bezos constantly jumped in with his own eager comments, revealing both detailed technical knowledge and unbridled enthusiasm for the adventure of space.
He said he leaves Amazon to come check in on Blue Origin most Wednesdays, and has no problem keeping up.
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“I only pursue things I have a passion for. These things give me energy. They don’t take it away,” said Bezos. “I’ve been studying rockets since I was 5 years old. It’s joyful for me.”
About 600 people work at Blue Origin, most at the Kent headquarters with a small number at its test-launch site near Van Horn, Texas.
Bezos said that will rise to 1,000 within the next year and later to 1,200 as the company ramps up its engineering and manufacturing.
“We’re busting out of the seams right now,” Bezos said. “We’re building new office space for a few hundred more seats and we just leased a new building a few blocks from here to put engineers in.”
The Kent engineers designed and built both the New Shepard suborbital space rocket and the BE-3 engine that powered it skyward on the first-ever safe landing of a launch rocket.
That rocket has now twice successfully launched unmanned into space and returned with a safe vertical landing, in pursuit of Bezos’ desire to make space rockets reusable and thus reduce the enormous cost of space travel.
Bezos said the rocket, following its initial flight in November, was reused in January after minimal refurbishment; the engine didn’t have to be removed from the rocket.
It will soon launch for a third time, he said.
Bezos is now developing and building in Kent a bigger rocket engine, the BE-4,which he’s offering as the successor to the Russian engines used today on Delta and Atlas rockets built by by United Launch Alliance — the joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that builds today’s Delta and Atlas rockets.
The BE-4 will power ULA’s next-generation rocket, called Vulcan, which will compete against SpaceX for future launches of National Security and NASA payloads.
Blue Origin will also use the BE-4 to power its own series of orbital rockets — much larger than New Shepard and, for now, nameless, though dubbed internally the “Very Big Brother” rockets. Those will be built and launched at Cape Canaveral, Fla., then land on platforms in the Atlantic Ocean.
Blue Origin expects to ramp up to building a dozen BE-4 engines a year in Kent, but it will need much higher production rates if ULA’s Vulcan and its own orbital rockets proceed as planned.
The company is actively searching for a site to build a large BE-4 production plant.
“It’s possible it could be here,” said Bezos. “It could be any number of places.”
On the sidelines of the tour by a small group of journalists, Blue Origin general counsel Robert Millman said it’s “crucial” for Washington state to pass legislation that extends the aerospace tax credits to space companies, if this state wants to have a chance of landing that facility.
“In terms of businesses it would attract, it would be a small cost (to the state) for a major upside gain,” said Millman.
The magic place
Inside the facility, Bezos declared, “This is where all the magic happens.”
In a vast, 62-foot-high assembly bay, engineers and mechanics worked on building three New Shepard rockets.
These are the first with crew capsules that have large windows, designed to eventually give each of six space tourists a breathtaking view during a short suborbital ride that includes a few minutes of weightlessness.
Bezos said he hopes his reusable rockets will make space travel routine for humans and will make them feel safer: “I would rather fly in a used 787 than on that 787’s first flight.”
Test pilots could go up in the New Shepard rockets as early as next year, said Bezos — though since the spacecraft flies autonomously, they’d be more test passengers than pilots.
Commercial flights with paying passengers could follow in 2018, he said.
Much of the serious engineering in Kent is now devoted to the BE-4 engine.
In that engine’s core, where temperatures reach 5,000 degrees, liquid fuel circulates in carefully machined channels to prevent a meltdown.
On Tuesday, engineers in a small operations center monitored video from Texas of a test stand where BE-4 engine components are being tested this week.
Full engine testing will come later this year, and the BE-4 should be approved by NASA next year, Bezos said, ready for the first Vulcan launch scheduled for 2019.
Blue Origin recently added a wing to its building to accommodate new million-dollar multi-axis machine tools and lathes used to manufacture the BE-4 engines.
Craig Companion, director of manufacturing and test, said the equipment operators are top-class machinists, some hired away from Boeing, earning $20 to $40 per hour.
Tyler Stanush joined Blue Origin from Boeing’s Auburn fabrication plant six months ago. On Tuesday, he operated a machine using lasers and a Kuka robot to weld together the large bell-like copper nozzle of an engine.
“I love it,” said Stanush. “This is a whole different world.”
Bezos’ engineers showed off components of the engines, including small parts that are 3-D printed as single pieces in machines that deposit layers of metal powder, then melt it into intricate shapes.
One such piece, cut away to display the interior, was a marvel of complexity, with convoluted tubes enclosing an inner piece of tiny metal honeycomb.
Bezos said that though basic rocket technology has not changed dramatically since the era of Wernher von Braun in the 1950s, the German-born rocketeer would be astonished by the advances in computer design and manufacturing capabilities that now enable rapid improvements from one prototype to the next.
Jules Verne and Dr. Seuss
Throughout the tour, Bezos punctuated his conversation with his trademark easygoing yet raucous laughter.
The fun started in Blue Origin’s weird and wonderful lobby, dominated by a gigantic art piece, a rocket ship seemingly straight out of Jules Verne’s imagination.
An upper floor leads to the top of this rocket, where a door opens into the crew quarters, which is outfitted like a Victorian study: a neat carpet on the floor, booklined walls, soft chairs around the perimeter that will comfortably seat six, and a fully stocked whiskey cabinet.
On display around the edges of the lobby are historic rocket engines, including one from a World War II-era Messerschmitt Komet rocket-powered fighter aircraft and another from a Soviet surface-to-air missile.
And amid models of various NASA rockets and the spacesuit helmet that astronaut Jim Irwin wore on Apollo 15, pride of place is occupied by a large model of the Starship Enterprise used in the first Star Trek movie.
Inspirational quotations selected by Bezos about flight, space and adventure decorate the walls, with contributions from Leonardo da Vinci, Jules Verne and Dr. Seuss. (“If you want to catch beasts you don’t see every day, You have to go places quite out of the way.”)
“I have that in my office at Amazon as well,” Bezos laughed.
Future of space
Beyond the fun-filled lobby, it’s clear Blue Origin is a temple to serious engineering and to furthering Bezos’ vision for space exploration.
He reiterated during the tour his ambition to make possible a future where there are “millions of people living and working in space.”
In a question-and-answer session over lunch, he elaborated.
In a few hundred years, without a change of direction, humans will have completely exhausted the Earth’s energy resources, Bezos said.
He acknowledged that it’s clear no other planet in our solar system is very suitable for human life.
“All the people who think they want to live on Mars should first live a few years in Antarctica,” he said. “Antarctica is a garden paradise compared to Mars.”
So he foresees a future in which heavy industry, manufacturing and mining of resources is done on nearby planets and this blue Earth (hence the name “Blue Origin”) is “rezoned as light industrial and residential,” an eco-paradise suited for civilization and fueled by the limitless resources beyond the planet.
He conceded he’ll be long dead before that happens, but he wants to get it started.
At the same time, he rejected the notion that the near-term application he pushes — space tourism — is frivolous.
He compared this idea to the barnstorming fliers in the 1920s who visited small towns and took people up for quick rides around a field.
“That was entertainment, but it really advanced aviation,” he said. “That led to better airplanes.”
Similarly, huge advances in computer technology were driven by gaming.
“If you look at the early days of almost any technology, one of the drivers of the technology is entertainment,” Bezos said. “It’s not frivolous.”
Bezos said he wants to go up in a New Shepard flight himself “as soon as possible.”
Information in this article, originally published March 8, 2016, was corrected March 9. A previous version incorrectly stated that ULA’s Vulcan rocket has been selected by NASA for future launches. It will compete against SpaceX for future NASA and Department of Defense launches.