Blue Origin may build new $220m rocket factory in Florida

The Blue Origin New Shepard being tested earlier this year - image courtesy of Blue Origin.
The Blue Origin New Shepard spacecraft being tested earlier this year - image courtesy of Blue Origin.

Private spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has expressed interest in expanding its rocket production in Florida.

The company, which is owned by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, has reportedly been vying for at least $8m in local-level incentives in order to build a new rocket manufacturing complex very close to the Kennedy Space Centre.

Competing for these financial incentives in secret under the name ‘Project Panther’, Blue Origin’s plans for the site were revealed by Senator Bill Nelson last month.

Documents filed with the local government indicate that Blue Origin plans to invest $205-220m in the project which will reportedly employ around 330 people.

While the latest secretive development plan fits the company’s preferred low-profile operation, Blue Origin has made large strides this year, which has brought considerable media attention.

Although the so far unsuccessful efforts of SpaceX to land reusable craft have grabbed the headlines in recent months, Blue Origin has also been testing its own reusable craft.

Last month the company’s New Shepard spacecraft was launched from a test site in West Texas, and successful attainted its maximum altitude of 307,000 feet (93.5km) before returning to Earth.

Similar to SpaceX, the booster stage on this rocket is intended to have a reusable vertical landing ability. In last month’s test however, a fuel pump problem caused this ability to fail, resulting in the loss of the rocket.

Unlike its competitors, Blue Origin is focusing on space tourism, rather than orbital delivery as its initial business plan.

Its New Shepard craft will take tourists to space in brief up-and-down flights, where they will be able to experience weightlessness and gaze on the Earth from 100km up. Such an approach is much less technically ambitious than that which competitors SpaceX, or Virgin Galactic are attempting.

While there is no timeline yet for when these rockets will begin commercial operation, it is likely that the proposed Florida factory would be their main site of production.

Collaboration with ULA

Blue Origin is only a small company at this stage but has negotiated a deal with the much larger player in the space launch industry, United Launch Alliance (ULA).

It has been contracted to jointly develop the new BE-4 engine which will power ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

The deal provides Blue Origin with solid funding and virtually guarantees its continued operation, regardless of the success of its space tourism operation.