Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture breaks ground on Alabama engine factory

Blue Origin groundbreaking ceremony
United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith are front and center for a groundbreaking ceremony at the future site of Blue Origin’s rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Ala. (City of Huntsville Photo via Twitter)

Civic leaders and space executives tossed shovels of dirt today to celebrate the groundbreaking for a $200 million rocket engine factory to be built in Alabama by Blue Origin, the space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

“It’s a great day here in Rocket City, and it will be that way for years to come,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith declared during the ceremony at Cummings Research Park in Huntsville, Ala.

Smith told the assembled crowd, “Blue Origin is all in on Alabama.”

The 200,000-square-foot facility is to open in March 2020 and manufacture BE-4 rocket engines for Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket as well as for United Launch Alliance’s next-generation, semi-reusable Vulcan rocket. ULA’s rocket production facility is located nearby in Decatur, Ala.

United Launch Alliance’s CEO, Tory Bruno, joined Smith for the traditional dirt-flinging exercise. Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks and U.S. Sen. Doug Jones were also in on the action.

“Blue Origin is a welcome addition to Alabama’s roster of world-class aerospace firms, and its new rocket engine facility in Huntsville will expand the state’s already-robust capabilities in spaceflight,” Ivey said.

Blue Origin says it will have more more than 300 employees at the Alabama factory.

Huntsville is home to the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal as well as NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which had the lead role in developing NASA’s Apollo-era Saturn V rocket and is playing a similar role for the future heavy-lift Space Launch System. That history, and the parts played by rocket pioneer Wernher von Braun and his team, earned Huntsville the “Rocket City” sobriquet.

Blue Origin’s 550,000-pound-thrust BE-4 engines, fueled by liquefied natural gas, are currently built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and tested at the company’s facility in West Texas. The engine is still in the final phases of testing, but production is expected to ramp up in advance of the first launches for the New Glenn and the Vulcan, now scheduled for 2021.

Both rocket development projects won hundreds of millions of dollars in support from the U.S. Air Force in October under the auspices of a program to encourage a wider range of options for national security launches.

The factory will also produce a vacuum-rated version of Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 rocket engine, known as the BE-3U, which will be used on the New Glenn’s upper stage.

Smith said Blue Origin was also in the final round of negotiations with Marshall Space Flight Center to take over a test stand that was previously used for putting the rocket engines for the Saturn V rocket and the space shuttle through their paces. The site would be used for acceptance testing for both the BE-3U and BE-4 engines.

“Through this agreement, we’ll provide for the refurbishment, restoration and modernization of this piece of American history,” Smith said.

Students from three Huntsville-area public school systems attended the groundbreaking to display projects they’ve been working on for the past year.

Engineering classes from Bob Jones High School in Madison, New Century Technology High School in Huntsville, and Sparkman High School in Madison County are participating in a collaborative project called DreamUp.

Each class is creating a CubeSat-size payload that will launch on a future Blue Origin suborbital New Shepard mission.