Whichever metric you want to use, this is a very exciting time for the US space program. NASA is refocusing its efforts to the Moon and beyond, SpaceX is launching routine crew and cargo flights to the International Space Station with reusable rockets, and if you have enough pockets, there are now several companies offering suborbital pleasure travel requiring little more than a few hours of training. It’s taken longer than many people had hoped, but it looks like we’ve finally made the progress needed to really utilize the vast resources of space.
But things are just getting started. A new generation of massive reusable rockets is currently being developed, which promise to make access to space cheaper and faster than ever before. We’ve seen a good chunk of SpaceX’s spacecraft, largely thanks to the spectacular test flights the media-savvy company regularly streams live on YouTube. But Blue Origin, founded by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, has been much more secretive about their New Glenn. That is, until now.
On November 8, Blue Origin deployed its GS1 simulator for the first leg of New Glenn. This substitute for the real rocket will never fly, but it’s designed to perfectly recreate the dimensions, center of gravity and mass of the real thing. Ground crews will use the GS1 to practice safely transporting the booster, which is about half the length of the Saturn V, from their production facility at Launch Complex 36 (LC-36) in Cape Canaveral. It will also be used to test the fit and function of various pieces of ground support equipment and possibly the second story stacking procedure.
For the uninitiated, it may seem like there’s a lot of noise around what is ultimately just a hollow metal tube. But the introduction of a test item like this has traditionally been a major milestone in the design and construction of rockets and spacecraft, dating back to the “boilerplate” test capsules used during the Mercury programs, Gemini and Apollo; a sure sign that what was just an idea is now becoming a reality.
It is practice makes perfect
As anyone who has worked on a project with many moving parts knows, sketches on paper or CAD models on screen will only get you so far. Eventually, you must validate your design, or at least a subset of it, on physical hardware to ensure that your components fit and interact as you expect. This concept is even more critical when dealing with something as monstrously complex as an orbital thruster or a human-sized spacecraft.
NASA created many test capsules early in its manned space program, ranging in complexity from inert mass simulators to instrument-laden craft that were launched into orbit to collect data on vehicle performance or space environment. After all, at that time, there were far more questions than answers. Without the luxury of modern simulation technology, building and flying a dummy capsule was the only real option.
By some accounts, at least 50 test capsules were built for the Apollo program alone. Many of them bore little resemblance to the final command module that took astronauts to the Moon, but that wasn’t always the point. Conversely, some were so internally accurate that they were used for astronaut training. While many of these capsules have survived to the present day and can be found in museums across the United States, several were destroyed or lost during testing. Some ended up being cut up for scrap, or rebuilt and reused for another experiment.
By the time the Space Shuttle development program was in full swing, the state of the art had improved dramatically. NASA was much more confident in its ability to simulate the behavior of the vehicle, to the point that there was no test flight of the full Shuttle “stack” until John Young and Robert Crippen had ascended. . Colombia in space on April 12, 1981.
But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have help ahead of the first crewed launch. NASA conducted an extensive series of approach and landing (ALT) tests using the Businessa prototype orbiter that was originally intended to be adapted for spaceflight until it was determined that it would in fact be cheaper to build Challenger from scratch due to changes in the final vehicle design.
These flight tests, which saw the Business dropped from the iconic Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), were designed to characterize how the orbiter would behave while descending back to Earth after re-entering the atmosphere. Once the ALT program is finished, Business went on tour to several NASA facilities for further testing.
It underwent vibration testing at Marshall Space Flight Center and then traveled to Kennedy Space Center so it could be used to check stacking procedures in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Eventually it even made its way to the LC-39 launch pad where it was mated to dummy versions of the External Tank and Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) for fit checks with the extensive support equipment. on the ground (GSE) of the shuttle.
Although Business is certainly the best known “dummy” space shuttle, it is not the only one. NASA also produced Scout, a test item that is reminiscent of Blue Origin’s GS1. Made partially of wood, this inert substitute for the Orbiter was used for less critical training and test applications.
One small step, no giant leap
Clearly, Blue Origin’s GS1 is in good company when it comes to American spaceflight history, and it’s a great sign that the company is making progress with its long-delayed rocket. But while the company would no doubt like the press to see this public posting of a completed test article as proof that New Glenn is approaching operational status, the reality is less exciting.
Even though Blue Origin has already built a flight-ready New Glenn, of which there is currently no evidence, the company has yet to complete work on the BE-4 engines that would power the heavy-lift vehicle. These are the same engines that United Launch Alliance was waiting to install in their prototype Vulcan rocket. With two flagship launchers literally unable to take off until the BE-4 is operational, there is enormous pressure on Blue Origin to deliver an engine that is already at least four years behind schedule.
The lack of prime movers is bad enough, but there is also uncertainty surrounding the second stage of the New Glenn vehicle. The original plan was for the upper stage of the rocket to be expendable, with only the first stage landing on an ocean platform for refurbishment and eventual flight; closely following the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket reuse program. But over the summer, it was revealed that Blue Origin intended to design a reusable second stage with the aim of reducing operational costs and better align their capabilities with SpaceX’s spacecraft. With so many pieces missing so late in the game, it seems likely that even at the best of times, New Glenn will still be several years away from entering operational status.