People were excited when Jeff Bezos’ rocket company Blue Origin signed a deal with NASA in 2019 to restore a historic Apollo test stand to test its new rocket engines at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.
It would bring “the sounds of rocket engines firing back to Huntsville,” Blue Origin President Bob Smith said in a phrase repeated more than once by local leaders. Saturn V engine tests rattling pictures on walls in the 1960s are some of the city’s most-retold memories. Those tests were a key part of turning Huntsville from a small southern town into the Rocket City.
But Blue Origin’s plan meant much more than echoes of the glory days. It would reinforce North Alabama’s place in the “new space” world of companies like Blue Origin, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada that are challenging “legacy” companies like Boeing as makers of space history.
Assuming the licenses are granted, Sierra Nevada will make more “new” history in a few years by landing its Dream Chaser space plane at the Huntsville International Airport after missions to the International Space Station.
Blue Origin knew it was taking on a big job, but restoring Test Stand 4670 turned out even bigger than the company thought. AL.com asked about the progress and the work ahead on a tour of 4670 this week.
“As we performed mitigation and sandblasting work, we discovered significant corrosion in the primary structure including rust that penetrated through 3-inch steel plates” lead engineer Scott Henderson said. Corrosion was expected - the stand has been out in the weather since the 1960 - but holes in 3-inch steel were not.
“Essentially, that’s where the 400 tons of steel we’re adding (to the stand) come into play,” Henderson said. “That’s not all replacing of rusted steel, but a significant part is. Some of that structural steel is unique to project to provide the stiffness necessary to very accurately measure engine thrust.… “
The restoration means no engine testing before September 2021, but Blue Origin engine tests will happen at 4670.
Test Stand 4670 was finished in 1965. It was used to test fire the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, modified in 1974 to test the space shuttle’s external tank and later used to test a modified shuttle engine.
It isn’t on the National Register of Historic Places, but it’s eligible. It’s one of those structures that show the size and power of rockets capable of going to the moon and the commitment and work needed to build them. Roughly 400 feet tall, the stand has four concrete support legs that are four feet thick set in bedrock 40 feet deep. It was built to test rocket engines with up to 12 million pounds of thrust.
Another example of its ’60s-era complexity is the way cooling water arrives to keep fiery rocket engine exhaust from melting the stand’s exhaust off-ramp. It comes from the Tennessee River 10 miles away by 13 diesel locomotive engines, and those engines can pump 190,000 gallons of water a minute to the stand. Young Blue Origin engineers have found the levers and dials of the engine control house one of the test site’s most fascinating features.
The key update to the stand is a large, horizontal deck with a hole in the center called “the octagon” for its shape. The steel around that hole will be fitted with specific support structures for each engine, and it will also hold the propellant tanks that will feed the engine and the thrust management systems during each test. New control rooms are also under construction with the necessary new wiring for control and communication.
What Blue Origin is doing
Blue Origin will use the stand to perform “acceptance tests” on each of the BE-3u and BE-4 engines it will build at a new rocket engine plant also in Huntsville. The engines will help boost Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket and also the giant Vulcan Centaur rocket being developed at United Launch Alliance in Decatur.
An acceptance test fires each production engine for roughly 300 seconds or about 5 minutes. It proves the engine can reach and maintain the thrust it was designed for and is structurally sound. Each engine must be acceptance-tested, and Blue Origin will test roughly one a week on the stand at Marshall.
The new Blue Origin engine factory that will make the engines opened in February in Huntsville’s Cummings Research Park. A tour led by plant Senior Director Eric Pacheco this week showed the steady emergence of a sophisticated system of parts supply “trains” that will serve massive lathes, milling machines and other tools that build rocket engines.
The machines arrive in shipping containers and are laid out on the plant floor for assembly like giant 3-D puzzles. Some are already assembled, and others will be soon. None can be photographed because federal law restricts images of machinery used for national security systems. The rockets these engines will lift will carry defense satellites.
The plant has 100 employees heading for roughly 450 next year operating in three shifts, five days a week, Pacheco said. The biggest challenge now is the same one affecting every business in the industrial world: COVID-19. It will be finished on time next year, Pacheco said.
Why Blue Origin is committed
The company is pushing forward with the stand. “We made the right decision and are fully committed to it,” Henderson said. “There are several advantages to having the test stand in Huntsville. “Propellants are easier to procure and less expensive than our Texas test site and the transportation and logistics are much more streamlined from factory to test to end customer. It’s economically the right way to go in the long haul.”
Bezos himself has been monitoring the test stand’s development, and the Huntsville team said he was disappointed at the delay but understands the business. In many ways, rockets and space are his real passion, and his company’s motto is “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.”
“If you’re building a flying vehicle, you can’t cut any corners,” Bezos explained in a 2016 interview. “If you do, it’s going to be [just] an illusion that it’s going to make it faster. … You have to do it step by step, but you do want to do it ferociously.”
Note to readers: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links we may earn a commission.