With the clock ticking on 2020, company engineers are still finalizing details on New Glenn’s design and just beginning to build model components that must be put through extreme testing, people familiar with the project said. They requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.
Blue Origin has privately acknowledged in conversations with French satellite firm Eutelsat SA – its first New Glenn customer – that its 2020 time frame is “very aggressive,” a person with direct knowledge of talks between the companies said.
The firms have padded their contract, which covers the launch of a geostationary satellite in the period 2021-2022, so that Blue Origin will incur no penalties if it is late, the person added.
Yohann Leroy, Eutelsat’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer, declined to discuss details of his company’s contract with Blue Origin, but said he was optimistic New Glenn will be ready to carry his firm’s satellite by the end of 2022.
“Of course, I cannot guarantee that they will respect their initial timeline, but we are confident that they will not be very far from it,” Leroy said.
A Blue Origin spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment about the company’s hiring practices, strategy or competitive challenges. The private firm has been tight-lipped on New Glenn’s production status and plans for bringing it to market.
Mounting a successful test in 2020 would give Blue Origin its best shot at fending off competing rockets and new ones expected to enter the market in the next few years, analysts said.
Rivals include aerospace stalwarts United Launch Alliance, a partnership between Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin ; and France’s ArianeGroup, a joint venture between Airbus and Safran. Japan and China are likewise designing reusable rockets.
But 18 years after its founding, Blue Origin has found itself lagging a competitor closer to home: SpaceX.
Founded by Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk, the Hawthorne, California-based company has upended the space industry with its relatively low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX has completed more than 50 successful Falcon launches and snagged billions of dollars’ worth of contracts, including deals with NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.
SpaceX in February transfixed a global audience with the successful test launch of its newest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, the most powerful operational rocket in the world.
Musk had predicted “game over” for other makers of heavy rockets if his launch succeeded.
The good news for Blue Origin is that demand for satellite launch services is projected to soar.
Around 800 small satellites are expected to launch annually beginning around 2020, more than double the annual average over the past decade, according to Marco Caceres, senior space analyst with Fairfax, Virginia-based Teal Group.
“If New Glenn can be ready in the next two years (Blue Origin) may be able to seize that window of opportunity,” he said.