NASA is planning a science mission to Mars that will ride up aboard a New Glenn — Blue Origin’s first big government contract for the as-yet-untested launch vehicle.
New Glenn is the much, much larger sibling of the sub-orbital New Shepherd rocket that so many celebrities and rich folks have gone to the edge of space in. Announced in 2016, the launch vehicle would compete with SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and other heavy-lift options. But 6 years later, we have yet to see a New Glenn in one piece, let alone ready to launch a Mars mission.
The first flight for New Glenn was scheduled for late 2021, but that date was “refined” earlier that year, purportedly because a contract with the Pentagon had fallen through. Q4 of 2022 was the next window, but obviously that’s come and gone. I’ve asked for updated timing.
The launch contract is through the Venture-Class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) program at NASA, which early last year assigned a maximum of $300 million to be split among 13 companies for launch services of various kinds. Everyone who’s anyone is on the list there, essentially providing a low-cost option for non-critical missions.
“These small satellites and Class D payloads tolerate relatively high risk and serve as an ideal platform for technical and architecture innovation,” wrote NASA at the time of the award. In other words, we’d certainly rather they didn’t blow up, but at this price who’s arguing?
The lucky mission to be awarded a spot on a New Glenn is EscaPADE, a dual-craft Martian magnetosphere study which funnily enough is being designed and built by launch rival Rocket Lab. (They don’t really overlap yet, in fact, but they are nominally competitors.)
The notional launch date is in 2024, but those tend to slip, especially when the rocket they’re supposed to go up on is still kind of theoretical. I’ve asked Rocket Lab what they think about all this and will update if I hear back.
New Glenn may not be flying yet, but it does have plenty of interest, most prominently from Blue Origin’s friends at Kuiper, Amazon’s communication satellite constellation company. They ordered 12 last year, which should keep Blue’s new Huntsville facility operating for the foreseeable future.