NASA signs agreement with Blue Origin to grow commercial space industry

NASA signs agreement with Blue Origin to grow commercial space industry

Stephen Kuper

Officials from NASA and the private space company Blue Origin have signed an agreement that grants the company use of a historic test stand as the agency focuses on returning to the moon and on to Mars, and America’s commercial space industry continues to grow.

Under a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670, at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, to support testing of its BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines.

The BE-4 engine was selected to power United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle – both being developed to serve the expanding civil, commercial and national security space markets.

NASA deputy administrator Jim Morhard welcomed the announcement, saying, "This test stand once helped power NASA’s first launches to the moon, which eventually led to the emergence of an entirely new economic sector – commercial space. Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector."

Constructed in 1965, Test Stand 4670 served as the backbone for Saturn V propulsion testing for the Apollo program. Later, it was modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. The facility has been inactive since 1998. 

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NASA identified the 300-foot-tall, vertical firing test stand at Marshall as an underutilised facility and posted a notice of availability in 2017 to gauge commercial interest in its use. Blue Origin responded and a team was commissioned to begin exploring the proposed partnership. 

"We’re excited to welcome Blue Origin to our growing universe of commercial partners. This agreement ensures the test stand will be used for the purpose it was built," said Marshall Center director Jody Singer.

Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, echoed the sentiment, saying, "I am thrilled about this partnership with NASA to acceptance test both BE-4 and BE-3U engines at Test Stand 4670, the historic site for testing the Saturn V first stage and the space shuttle main engines.

"Through this agreement, we’ll provide for the refurbishment, restoration and modernisation of this piece of American history – and bring the sounds of rocket engines firing back to Huntsville."

Under the agreement, Blue Origin will pay for the investments it makes to prepare the test stand for use, as well as any direct costs NASA incurs as a result of Blue Origin use of the stand, maximising the value derived from taxpayer investment in government facilities.

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