In late May, a rumor concerning Blue Origin’s large New Glenn rocket broke on several social media sites frequented by spaceflight enthusiasts.
According to the rumor, Blue Origin was changing the primary structural material of its new rocket from an aluminum alloy to stainless steel. The social media posts sparked considerable interest, as they implied that the company would mimic a competitor in its choice of materials—SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy are made primarily from stainless steel. Moreover, such a change also augured further delays in the New Glenn development program, which was already years behind schedule.
At the time, I checked with a source and found the rumor to be false. New Glenn was not swapping its first stage to stainless steel.
However, after subsequent reporting, I discovered a kernel of truth to the rumors of stainless steel and Blue Origin rockets. Three sources have confirmed to Ars that Blue Origin has started working on a project to develop a fully reusable upper stage for New Glenn, which may potentially use stainless steel propellant tanks.
The primary goal of this change is to bring down the overall launch cost of the New Glenn rocket. The vehicle’s large upper stage, with a 7-meter diameter and two BE-3U engines, is costly, and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is looking for ways to make the overall rocket more economical.
“This is the difference between taking a profit and a loss on New Glenn launches,” said one industry source familiar with the reusable upper-stage plan.
The reusable second-stage program appears to have drawn inspiration from SpaceX for more than just its stainless steel materials. In making both the first and second stages of New Glenn fully reusable, Bezos is emulating Musk’s ambitious plan to land and reuse both the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage.
When Musk formally announced the Starship project in 2016 (then referred to as ITS, or Interplanetary Transport System), many in the industry were skeptical of his plan to build a massive, reusable launch system. They remained dubious in early 2019, after Musk announced a switch from carbon fiber to low-cost stainless steel for the rocket’s primary structure. Although stainless steel is cheaper and better able to withstand atmospheric heating during reentry, it is about five times heavier than composites.
Bezos had been asking his senior staffers about reusable upper stages, but advisers told him such an approach was unlikely to work, sources said. Bezos also seems to have been told the SpaceX “fail forward” method of rapidly prototyping and testing Starships, with few processes and procedures, would be unlikely to succeed.
However, over the last year, Bezos took note as SpaceX launched and landed its Starship vehicle. This is one of the reasons he decided to initiate a project named “Jarvis” at Blue Origin within the reusable second-stage program. Sources said Bezos has walled off parts of the second-stage development program from the rest of Blue Origin and told its leaders to innovate in an environment unfettered by rigorous management and paperwork processes.
Work has advanced quickly on the Jarvis project, apparently named after the character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Initial tank tests could begin as soon as this fall on stainless steel hardware at Blue Origin’s site in Florida, followed by further tests if the approach proves feasible. For now, at least, the company’s plan is to launch New Glenn initially with an expendable second stage before transitioning to the fully reusable upper stage in the mid-2020s. Such a fully reusable launch system is now seen as a key to competing with SpaceX to launch large payloads.
It is not clear what budget Bezos has allocated for Project Jarvis or whether its managers report directly to Bezos or to Bob Smith, the chief executive of Blue Origin. Blue Origin VP of Communications Linda Mills did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Blue Origin also appears to be focusing more on in-space activities beyond launching rockets. Sources said that Bezos recently greenlighted two other major projects, one related to in-space propulsion and another focusing on developing and demonstrating in situ resource-utilization technologies for the Moon and beyond.
For the resources project, one source said, Blue has almost overnight put together perhaps the best space-resources team in the industry. The company hired research scientist Vlada Stamenkovic from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to lead the team and has made several other key hires. The goal of this program is to enable humans to more sustainably live on the Moon and develop resources to benefit life back on Earth.
Additionally, Blue Origin this month finalized the hire of Austin Murnane as a senior legal counsel. Formerly an attorney at Latham & Watkins in New York, Murnane has expertise in the legal aspects of space resources. His background suggests that Blue Origin may assert that the resources of space belong to no one and that the company may stake claims to resources on the Moon and elsewhere.
In the Fordham International Law Journal, Murnane wrote a 40-page article arguing that, for modern-day prospectors—in the form of commercial space companies—the Moon, asteroids, and other bodies in the Solar System should be free of control from terrestrial governments or the United Nations and the Outer Space Treaty.
“If the Outer Space Treaty is read to have established UN sovereignty in space, it would make that organization the master of all bodies outside of Earth’s atmosphere,” Murnane wrote. “When one considers the vast multitude of celestial bodies in Earth’s Solar System, and further notes that there are probably more than one hundred billion stars in our galaxy, plus untold millions of other galaxies in the universe, such a claim is breathtakingly arrogant.”