The project is expected to generate 330 jobs in Brevard and include more than $200 million in investments for manufacturing and launch pad facilities
The Space Coast’s glory days launching men to the moon on Saturn V rockets helped instill a “missionary passion” for space exploration in a young Jeff Bezos.
Now the billionaire Amazon.com founder and CEO’s dreams of opening spaceflight to the masses, not just an elite corps of astronauts, could play a central role in Cape Canaveral’s future.
In a ceremony at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Launch Complex 36 on Tuesday, Bezos confirmed that Blue Origin, the private space company he started 15 years ago, would build reusable rockets in Brevard County and launch them from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“We humans need to become a spacefaring civilization,” Bezos told reporters. “Do we want to go to Mars? Absolutely. But we want to go everywhere. And if you want to go everywhere, then you need to dramatically lower the cost of space.”
To achieve that goal, Seattle-based Blue Origin expects to start construction soon of a “21st Century production facility” for building rocket stages and components at Exploration Park, just south of Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island.
“Another week and another job announcement on the Space Coast,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott, making his third stop in the area this month following announcements by aerospace firms Boeing and Embraer.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, KSC Director Bob Cabana and Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven Garland were among other dignitaries sharing the covered stage Blue Origin erected for the ceremony at Launch Complex 36.
The presentation even included a recorded welcome message from International Space Station astronauts Scott Kelly and Kjell Lindgren.
A repeated theme was the Space Coast’s comeback from roughly 8,000 contractor layoffs and the doldrums that accompanied NASA’s retirement of the space shuttle program in 2011, plus hopes that a new era of lower-cost commercial spaceflight is close to taking off.
At Launch Complex 36, Blue Origin will build a launch pad, a processing hangar and a stand to test rocket engines’ readiness for flight.
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The pad at the tip of Cape Canaveral has hosted more than 140 missions, including Mariner, Pioneer and Surveyor robotic spacecraft, plus military and commercial satellites. But the last launch was in 2005.”The pad has stood silent for more than 10 years – too long,” Bezos said to applause. “We can’t wait to fix that.”
Bezos offered no detailed timeline, saying Blue Origin hoped to launch “later this decade.” Initial test flights would carry research payloads before the rockets are deemed safe for people.
The company in April completed a test flight to the edge of space by its New Shepard vehicle, which is being designed to fly space tourists on suborbital trips launched from Texas. Another New Shepard test flight is possible this year, but it is not part of the company’s plans in Florida.
Here, Bezos said residents would “hear us before you see us,” starting with test-firings of its own BE-4 engine.
The methane-fueled engine will power the first-stage of Blue Origin’s orbital rocket. It is also the front-runner to boost United Launch Alliance’s planned Vulcan rocket, potentially ending ULA’s reliance on Russian-made engines and making Blue Origin a player in launches of national security satellites.
Blue Origin is like no other space company to fly from the Cape: It has no government or commercial launch contracts, and doesn’t need any in the near-term thanks to its billionaire backing.
That backing, Bezos said, allows Blue Origin to operate according to a Latin motto that translates to “step by step, ferociously,” and not fret about short-term funding pressures that even NASA struggles with year to year, causing programs to start and stop.
“That kind of steadiness, I think is unbelievably valuable,” he said. “One of the things that Blue brings is just a very stable approach, and that comes because in large part we don’t need government funding.”
While focused on human spaceflight, Blue Origin might eventually compete for contracts to launch government satellites, or people to private space stations.
But Bezos appears not to worry about competing with SpaceX or ULA, which occupy four pads further up the coast. He said he brings a long-term perspective that envisions space as an enormous market where millions of people will one day live and work.
“Space is pretty big,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities, and there’s room for multiple winners.”
The company’s orbital booster and engines are intended to fly multiple times. The booster would land on a barge, similar to what SpaceX has attempted recently with its Falcon rockets — so far unsuccessfully. The crew capsule also would be reused.
“You cannot afford to be a spacefaring civilization if you throw the rocket away every time you use it,” he said. “We have to be focused on reusability, we have to be focused on lowering the cost to space.”
With that emphasis on lowering costs, Blue Origin early on wasn’t interested in launching from the Air Force Station.
It preferred instead the state’s proposed Shiloh commercial launch complex at the north end of KSC and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and considered options in other states that would take longer to be ready.
Bezos said Blue Origin reviewed detailed bids from five states before committing to Florida, which won out because of its ideal location for orbital launches and the skilled work force that will be needed to build and launch the missions.
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He credited the Air Force with taking important steps to build confidence that Blue Origin’s commercial business would be welcomed alongside high-priority national security missions.
“We had to really get comfortable that the Air Force was serious about leaning forward and making this a great place to operate commercially, and I’m convinced they are,” he said.
Blue Origin is known for being secretive, and Tuesday’s celebration offered little new information about its flight plans, though Bezos showed off an artist’s concept of the orbital rocket blasting off from Cape Canaveral.
He promised more detail about the rocket next year, and asked guests to “please keep watching.”
“The vision for Blue is pretty simple, which is we want to see millions of people living and working in space, and that’s going to take a long time,” he said. “But we’ll do it step by step.”