Blue Origin transfers ‘pathfinder’ rocket to Cape Canaveral launch pad

Blue Origin transferred a full-size mock-up of its reusable New Glenn booster through Kennedy Space Center on Nov. 11 from the company’s factory to its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The mock-up, also known as a simulator or pathfinder, allows Blue Origin to practice rocket transport operations for future New Glenn missions. The 188-foot-long (57-meter) first stage simulator emerged from the company’s factory near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on a transporter for the slow, winding route to pad 36 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Blue Origin said the pathfinder will be used for several “mission operations tests” to prepare for future flight hardware. The tests include route verifications, recovery and refurbishment simulations, stage mate simulations, and vehicle rollout at the launch pad, the company said.

“While not destined for flight, this hardware is giving our team invaluable data to inform future launch vehicle operations,” Blue Origin said. “All these operations tests are moving New Glenn closer to first flight,” Blue Origin said.

Like the real New Glenn booster stage, the rocket simulator measures 23 feet (7 meters) in diameter and includes strakes, or fins, that would be used in flight to provide lift and cross-range steering during descent and landing. Blue Origin intends to recover reusable New Glenn boosters on an offshore ship for refurbishment and reuse.

The first stage simulator consists of separable aft, mid, and forward modules, according to Blue Origin. The structure emulates the mass, center of gravity, outer mold line, and external interfaces of the flight modules.

The privately-funded New Glenn rocket will the Blue Origin’s first orbital-class launch vehicle. Founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin currently flies the suborbital New Shepard booster to the edge of space from a site in West Texas.

Blue Origin launched the first New Shepard mission with people on-board in July. Bezos joined three crewmates on that flight. Another New Shepard flight with a crew of four blasted off on a 10-minute flight to suborbital space in October.

Early this year, Blue Origin announced the first launch of the New Glenn rocket would be delayed from late 2021 to late 2022. There has not been a schedule update on the program since February, and although the launch pad Cape Canaveral is nearly complete, Blue Origin has released little information on the status of flight hardware fabrication and testing.

The New Glenn rocket will stand 313 feet (95 meters) tall, making it one of the largest launchers to ever fly from Florida’s Space Coast. Seven methane-fueled BE-4 engines will power the first stage, producing 3.85 million pounds of thrust at full throttle, according to Blue Origin.

Blue Origin is completing development of the BE-4 engine, which will first fly on United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket next year. Two BE-4 engines will launch on ULA’s Vulcan first stage.

Progress on the BE-4 itself has been delayed, forcing ULA to adjust its schedule to accommodate late engine deliveries.

The New Glenn upper stage will be expendable, with two hydrogen-fueled BE-3U engines derived from engines used on Blue Origin’s New Shepard booster.

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