Blue Origin continues to take big steps forward with its New Glenn orbital rocket as hardware rolls out to the launch pad, cryogenic testing begins, and the BE-4 engine gains a new test stand. The company still aims to launch New Glenn at least once in 2024.

Over the past month, Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) has seen a large increase in New Glenn-related activity, including two vehicles being rolled out of the integration facility and raised vertically on the launch mount, the first-ever publicly visible cryogenic tanking tests of New Glenn hardware, and pad upgrades to support future hardware testing.

The first rollout took place on Feb. 11, 2024, when Blue Origin rolled out a simulator vehicle from LC-36’s integration facility and up the ramp to the launch mount. The simulator vehicle consisted of mockup first and second stages which are used to simulate the size, shape, and dry mass of New Glenn’s flight stages. The simulator was then raised to a vertical position on Feb. 13.

The operation tested rolling out the transporter erector (TE) with a rocket onboard and rotating it into a vertical position on the launch mount. After spending three days at the launch pad, the stack was lowered to horizontal and rolled back into the integration facility on Feb 14.

A full New Glenn stack raised vertical at Blue Origin’s Launch Complex 36. (Credit: Blue Origin)

Just one week later on Feb. 21, 2024, Blue Origin rolled out the first full stack of a New Glenn rocket. The vehicle was raised to vertical between its two 175-meter-tall lightning towers later that day. New Glenn became the fourth tallest rocket to ever stand on the Space Coast at 98 meters tall, only behind the Saturn V, Ares I-X, and SLS.

While parts of the vehicle – such as the aft section, interstage, second stage, and fairings – are not flight hardware, the first stage tankage is intended to take part in a static fire later this year as well as to be used on a future mission.

The purpose of the stack going to the launch pad was to perform an integrated tanking test (ITT), which would demonstrate filling the booster with liquid nitrogen to test cryogenic tanking operations, tank pressure control, and the vehicle’s venting systems.

On Feb. 27, a tanking test of the New Glenn first stage was observed. This marked the first time a New Glenn tank section would receive any cryogenics on the pad at LC-36, marking a major milestone for the launch pad itself as ground systems went through activation. The test lasted for around 3 hours before all activity disappeared. On March 4, another tanking test took place and lasted for at least six hours.

The New Glenn pathfinder vertical at Launch Complex 36 following testing. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Following these events, Blue Origin confirmed that three tanking tests had been completed on New Glenn’s first stage, and the vehicle would be rolled back to the integration facility. From here, it is most likely that the rocket will be prepared for the next round of testing, which will include a static fire of the seven first-stage BE-4 engines. This test will mark the first time that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines will ignite while integrated with a New Glenn first stage. It will also be the first time that the new launch pad supports an engine firing.

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Blue is planning for an initial fleet of four boosters, as each New Glenn first stage is intended to be reused at least 25 times. With experience gained from 22 successful propulsive landings of New Shepard’s propulsion module, it is not unreasonable that Blue will be able to achieve its goal of successfully landing New Glenn’s first stage on the maiden launch. However, a landing platform is yet to be seen after the company scrapped its Jacklyn ship in 2022 in favor of a more simplified barge-like system.

Blue Origin recently filed updated site plans for LC-36 as part of a permit to upgrade the facility. Included in the plans was a new site at the northeast corner of the complex, referred to as an MKX Test Stand. With propellant lines running to this site from the pad’s main tank farm, this could be a new test stand to support the development of the company’s Clipper program, which aims to be a reusable second stage for New Glenn. It is also possible that the area may be related to Blue’s lunar lander program, as there are two variants of the Blue Moon lander — MK1 and MK2.

Two test tanks have been observed at LC-36 in the past few years. The first was referred to as Project Jarvis. The tank sat on a simple mount built near the liquid hydrogen tank farm. The second tank also sat on this stand, however, the tank itself had a more refined look as well as featured what appeared to be a header tank on its forward end. Five tents were constructed at the northwest corner of LC-36 to support the development of these tanks, although no new articles have been observed in nearly a year.

A New Glenn second-stage tank inside the 2CAT facility. (Credit: Max Evans for NSF)

Just 14 kilometers away from LC-36, Blue Origin’s Exploration Park campus hosts several New Glenn vehicles currently in production as the company builds out its initial fleet of rockets. According to Blue Origin, three upper stages have been completed and three more are currently in production. A New Glenn second stage was recently observed inside the company’s 2nd Stage Tank Cleaning and Test (2CAT) Facility, another sign that Blue is working ahead to build up a fleet of rockets to hit the ground running once it starts launching.

The footprint of Blue Origin’s facilities at Exploration Park, located just outside of Kennedy Space Center, continues to grow as foundations for a new building are currently under construction. According to planning documents from 2022, the structure that will be located near the company’s warehouse will cover nearly 18,000 square meters and have a height ranging from 10 to 41 meters. The documents refer to the building as a Composite Assembly Building. Blue Origin originally aimed to have this facility complete in 2023, however, the construction was likely deprioritized in favor of other projects.

At the beginning of February, Blue Origin successfully fired a BE-4 engine at the historic Test Stand 4670 located inside NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center. The test stand, which is now capable of supporting firings of both BE-4 and BE-3U engines, is conveniently located just 12 kilometers from Blue Origin’s Huntsville, Alabama, engine factory, which opened in 2020.

One key difference that 4670 has compared to the existing BE-4 test stands at Blue Origin’s facilities in West Texas is that the engines here are fired in a vertical orientation, not horizontally. This makes the facility a very important part of the testing flow for New Glenn’s propulsion system and is a key player in bringing the orbital rocket online in time to meet the company’s goals.

(Lead image: The New Glenn pathfinder at LC-36 following its first cryo test. Credit: Julia Bergeron for NSF)

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