Jeff Bezos' Kent-based venture into suborbital space flights is preparing to meet a funding milestone this month, although nobody wants to talk about it. "Blue Origin is not conducting interviews at this time," says spokesperson Gwen Griffin. Of course, Amazon founder Bezos never says too much about anything, and his privately funded space company, aided by a $3.7 million grant from NASA last year and competing with Boeing among others, is likely his deepest secret. But Bezos is hiring engineers as he continues to develop a vertical launch and landing spacecraft called New Shepard, expecting even more NASA funding this month.
The company will not discuss any success it has had in developing its prototype--which Bezos hopes will someday lead to private suborbital space rides for tourists. But NASA apparently thinks there's progress: the agency says it is proceeding with plans to award roughly $200 million to eight companies, including Bezos', this month, to continue development and testing.
In the initial stages, Blue Horizon's craft could haul a crew of three or more astronauts to space, according to Gary Lai, a Blue Origin project developer who, surprisingly, revealed some of Bezos' plans to a crowd of researchers last year.
"If we're famous for anything . . . it's for being quiet," Lai said. "One of the reasons is [that] it certainly keeps our marketing and public relations staff small," he joked.
But Lai added that Blue Origin is steeped in a culture that will only give details after flight milestones are met. Regarding New Shepard, "the first time most of the public will see that vehicle is when it's in the air and is flying," he said.
Flight testing of prototype New Shepard vehicles began in 2006, with Blue Origin's Goddard rocket (below). But plans are changing regularly, and the craft being developed today is "not necessarily what the operational New Shepard vehicle looks like," Lai says. It will be more of a pressurized crew capsule mounted atop a propulsion module to send astronauts upward of 400,000 feet. It will then coast to the edge of space after shutting off its engines.
"The trajectory is nearly vertical . . . straight up, straight down," Lai said at the meeting. "We will re-enter vertically and restart the engines and do a powered landing on the propulsion module."
Blue Origin, dreaming big, once planned weekly commercial suborbital tourist space flights by 2010. It later scaled that back to fly unmanned in 2011, and manned in 2012.
The Boeing Co., which received $18 million in NASA funding last year, is also seeking additional funds this month to develop a crew capsule that would be launched atop various rockets. Boeing is teaming with North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace in the sub-orb space race.
Inside Kent headquarters facility