Blue Origin strikes a deal with NASA to use a historic rocket test stand in Alabama

A 1965 photo shows a Saturn V first-stage rocket engine being test-fired at Marshall Space Flight Center’s Test Stand 4670 in Alabama. Blue Origin has struck a deal with NASA to refurbish and use the facility, which has been inactive since 1998. (NASA Photo)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has signed an agreement with NASA for the use of a historic test stand at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

Under the terms of a Commercial Space Launch Act agreement, Blue Origin will upgrade and refurbish Test Stand 4670 to support testing of its BE-3U and BE-4 rocket engines, NASA said today.

“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,” NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard said in a news release. “Now, it will have a role in our ongoing commitment to facilitate growth in this sector.”

The 300-foot-tall, vertical firing test stand was built in 1965 to test rocket engines for NASA’s Saturn V rocket, and was later modified to support testing of the space shuttle external tank and main engine systems. It hasn’t been used since 1998.

NASA identified the test stand as an underused facility and posted a notice of availability in 2017 to gauge commercial interest in its use. Blue Origin responded to the notice, and a team was commissioned to explore a partnership.

The Alabama connection got stronger last year when United Launch Alliance selected Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which is fueled by liquefied natural gas, to power the first stage of its next-generation Vulcan rocket. That opened the way for Blue Origin to start building a $200 million rocket engine factory in Huntsville.

Blue Origin also plans to use the BE-4 as well as the hydrogen-fueled BE-3U engine on its own orbital-class New Glenn rocket. BE-4 engines are currently being built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., but production will shift to Alabama once the Huntsville factory is finished.

Both New Glenn and the Vulcan rocket are due to go into service in 2021.

“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,” Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith said. “Through this agreement, we’ll provide for the refurbishment, restoration and modernization of this piece of American history – and bring the sounds of rocket engines firing back to Huntsville.”

Marshall Center Director Jody Singer said she was “thrilled 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,” Singer said.

Blue Origin will pay for the investments it makes to prepare the test stand for use, plus any direct costs NASA incurs as a result of Blue Origin’s use of the stand.

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