Jeff Bezos offers glimpse of Blue Origin rocket plant
You could drive by the plant not knowing it's there
KENT, Wash. – You could drive right past the building, surrounded by a green chain link fence and next to a railroad track, without realizing that a big part of Brevard County's high-tech future is inside.
There is not even a sign outside to tell the public that it's the headquarters of Blue Origin, the private rocket company that aims to revolutionize the business and technology behind space travel.There's just a weathered concrete sign that ;reads 21218 76th Avenue South.
Inside it's a much different story, as engineers and machinists design, manufacture and assemble rockets that are meant to be used over and over and dramatically reduce the cost of future space flight - both for cargo deliveries and space tourism.
News 6 partner Florida Today was one of a handful of media outlets on Tuesday granted a rare peek inside the headquarters of Blue Origin outside Seattle, as it prepares to break ground on a rocket manufacturing facility on Merritt Island. Florida also is in the running to win production of the company's powerful BE-4 rocket engines.
Blue Origin hopes to be ready to launch an orbital rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 36 by 2019. People could travel on suborbital flights on a Blue Origin craft next year.
Blue Origin's chief financial backer is billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com. He led the approximately three-hour tour and did most of the talking on subjects as arcane as fuel injectors and materials to his vision of what he wants for space.
"I want millions of people living and working in space," Bezos said at many points of his tour.
It's a big facility that is part high-tech design center with drafting table-type desks for engineers, a cafeteria that overlooks the production floor and peppered throughout with memorabilia ranging from actual Apollo flight suits to models used in science-fiction movies such as "Star Trek" and "Silent Running."
On the production floor, specialized machinists work on multimillion-dollar lathes, milling machines and 3-D printers.
Bezos talks easily about the hard science behind the engineering that makes space travel not only possible, but cost-effective.
"All of our endeavors should be profitable," he said.
'You do this because you're a missionary for it.'
Among his many interests, space travel has held particular intrigue for Bezos since he was a child. Starting a company like Blue Origin to pursue that interest was for decades not in the realm of possibility.
"Then I won this lottery ticket called Amazon.com," Bezos said. "I can actually fulfill my childhood dream."
His vision, like those on the team of Blue Origin, is to dramatically reduce the cost of space flight so there would be hundreds of launches a year, not dozens. The two engines the company's engineers are developing and refining, the BE-3 and BE-4, are intended to power its own designed spacecraft, as well as those of other companies. The engines could also end up on the Vulcan vehicle the United Launch Alliance is designing to replace the Atlas V.
The mantra following Blue Origin's successful sub-orbital launch and landing of its New Shepard rocket and crew capsule on Jan. 22 from the company's private range in West Texas was "Launch. Land. Repeat." Bezos announced the test flight success in a blog post, revealing that it used the same suborbital New Shepard rocket and crew capsule the company launched and landed last November.
What he and the Blue Origin team seemed to find most fascinating - though not unexpected - was that there was relatively little work on getting the rocket ready for its next launch. Blue Origin crews never even removed the engine.
"This is pretty much the most awesome thing you can do," said Michael Krene, head of project development for the BE-4, who donned black jeans and red Converse canvas sneakers.
Gradatim Ferociter, or 'step by step, ferociously'
That's Blue Origin's motto meant to signify an aggressive, yet careful and methodical approach, in achieving its goals. Bezos quietly started Blue Origin in 2000 and it wasn't until three years later when he started purchasing property in West Texas that it became public.
Blue Origin's 260,000-square-foot facility, a modern structure of tan stone and glass, is about a 30-minute drive south from the headquarters of Amazon in Seattle, and also the Microsoft Corp. headquarters in Redmond.
The 600 employees working at Blue Origin's Kent headquarters come from all the United States and have been involved with NASA, or aerospace for decades. The operation at Cape Canaveral will add about 200.
All seem on board with Bezos' philosophy to be fast, but not to rush things.
"You get there faster when you take things step by step," said Bezos, casually dressed in blue jeans as walked the floor of Blue Origin's facility - which at one time built tunnel-building components for the England to France tunnel under the English Channel.
Bezos said he gets over to the facility at least once a week, usually Wednesdays.
"I'm deeply involved here," he said "These things give me energy. They don't take away energy."
Why the look now?
Bezos and Blue Origin are known for being notoriously quiet, if not downright secretive when it comes to the company's operations and progress. Tuesday's peek under the curtain at the headquarters follows the company's latest successful sub-orbital launch.
He said it was time to allow more access because the company has reached a level where it felt there wasn't an overly amount of hype associated with what the company wants to do.
"Space is very easy to overhype," Bezos said. "The ratio to attention to what you've actually done can be very extreme."
United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket will use the more powerful BE-4. Also Orbital ATK could use the company's BE-3U as an upper-stage engine for a future rocket.
That leaves a key question that has states, including Florida, salivating: Where will Blue Origin decide to build the BE-4? Florida, no doubt, wants to be considered, but so do many states.
"The biggest question is a talented work force," Bezos said, adding, "then you want to go some place welcoming, that really wants the company."
And Blue Origin is part of a group of commercial space companies working toward launches of space tourists on suborbital flights - Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace - and NASA astronauts on orbital missions (Boeing, SpaceX) within the next two or three years. The companies involved in the latter include Boeing Co. and Space X.
As for Bezos, he said he plans to be a space tourist at some point but he wants to do it his way. He had opportunities go launch from Russia but rejected that option. He wants to go on a Blue Origin vehicle.
"It's not what drives me," he said of personally flying into space. "I do want to go and I will go."
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