When looking at the launch vehicles and space initiatives developed by SpaceX, it’s essentially a billionaire spilling money toward rocket innovation to explore the outside realm of space, placing humans and satellites in the process. Although SpaceX is a new and popular company founded by Elon Musk, Blue Origin has been established for over 20 years, led by billionaire Jeff Bezos. So what has Blue Origin been doing all this time?
While the New Shepard rockets get a lot of attention and “popularity” due to their appearance, the engines which carry these rockets are often the main spotlight. The BE-1 engine was the first engine developed by Blue Origin, which used RP-1 kerosene and hydrogen peroxide to provide 9 kilonewtons (kN) of thrust. Nine of these were equipped on the first stage of the company’s first rocket test launch, Goddard PM-1, where it successfully took off, reached an apex no more than 300 feet, and then performed a steady and gradual landing. After this, Blue Origin then started working toward their next engine variation: BE-2.
Powering the New Shepard PM-2 launch vehicle, the BE-2 engine was able to propel the rocket up to 40,000 feet into the air (using 5 engines) on its second attempt prior to only igniting three on its first flight. After the BE-2 came the BE-3, using liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen (LOX) instead of RP-1 or H2O2. The BE-4 engine uses LOX but instead of a hydrolox combination, uses methane; it is the most powerful rocket engine which uses this liquified natural gas (LNG) paired with LOX.
Out of many flights, the New Shepard rocket has four different variations that were launched following substantial testing. New Shepard 1 debuted on April 29th, 2015, named after American astronaut Alan Shepard. The rocket launch was successful and the parachute deployment for the capsule was executed well, yet the booster crashed down onto the ground during descent. The New Shepard 2 rocket was made after the New Shepard 1, yet only had 5 total flights and retired in 2016 (all considered successful). New Shepard 3 was made for further testing and payloads to orbit, yet did not carry any astronauts. New Shepard 4 is the final variant built so far for the NS rockets, and is meant to carry humans for commercial travel purposes. The rocket was even used to launch Jeff Bezos to space (NS-16).
Besides New Shepard rockets, Blue Origin has started to advance with a new rocket known as New Glenn, which has a 7-meter capsule fairing for payloads and a height that towers over rockets, such as the Delta IV Heavy. The launch vehicle shows off the BE-4 engines on its first stage and utilizes seven of them while the second stage is powered by two BE-3U engines, a variant of the BE-3. The BE-3U is an expander cycle, using its fuel to circulate around the nozzle (I believe to solve overheating/“melting”) and complete a closed cycle to power the turbine. Additionally, the first stage is reusable, following in the footsteps of New Shepard and the Falcon rockets.