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Blue Origin takes one giant leap across the street to space venture’s new HQ in Kent

Blue Origin takes one giant leap

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KENT, Wash. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ space effort now officially has more space. To be precise, 232,885 square feet more space.

That’s the bottom line from today’s ribbon-cutting ceremony for Blue Origin’s new headquarters building — a multimillion-dollar facility across the street from the site of its original HQ and New Shepard suborbital spaceship factory in Kent.

Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told GeekWire that the new HQ was required because “we’re growing like crazy.”

“We’ve grown a third in just the past year,” Smith said during an interview on the mezzanine of the U-shaped building. “So we’re now north of 2,500 people here.”

The new structure, built on a 30.7-acre site that the company purchased a little more than two years ago for $14 million, is built to accommodate 1,500 of those employees. Hundreds more are based elsewhere in the Kent area, south of Seattle, as well as at Blue Origin’s suborbital launch site in West Texas, the Florida rocket factory where Blue Origin’s New Glenn orbital-class rocket will be assembled, and at the site of its future BE-4 rocket engine factory in Alabama.

The mission that faced the construction team, headed by general contractor Sierra Construction, was to create an innovative, interesting facility that’s on brand for the company that Bezos founded back in the year 2000. And to do it quickly.

Smith said the builders succeeded. Construction started last January, and the project was finished in time to start moving in employees last month (and serve as the venue for Blue Origin’s annual holiday party).

A mockup of Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander, placed in a wide-open gathering space just beyond the lobby, serves as the building’s centerpiece — within sight of the employee lounge and kitchen facilities. An enclosed conference room on the mezzanine has a big picture window that looks down at Blue Moon. Workstations are placed in clusters beneath the hangar-style sloped roof in one of the block-long arms of the building’s “U.”

The new HQ has been dubbed the O’Neill Building — in honor of Princeton physicist Gerard O’Neill, whose vision of giant space colonies inspired Bezos’ oft-mentioned dream of having “millions of people living and working in space.”

As part of the transition, the old HQ was named as well. It’s now known as the Verne Building, in a nod to the Jules Verne-style rocket that graces its lobby.

The marquee of Blue Origin’s new HQ glows on a rainy morning. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Smith said the O’Neill Building’s employees will be working on Blue Moon and New Glenn, among other projects. “We try to co-locate a lot of our employees working on the same things,” he said. “We have some of the New Glenn team that will be over here, but we can’t fit ’em all.”

Fortunately, Blue Origin was able to fit scores of VIPs, and hundreds of watching employees, into the Blue Moon gathering space for today’s official ceremonies. Smith played up the local angle in his opening remarks, saying that Blue Origin will be pursuing its space program “from a headquarters, and a population, that is actually based here in Kent.”

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph struck a similar tone, marveling at how quickly Blue Origin’s workforce has rocketed past 2,500.

“Every single time I come down for a tour, I feel like I’ve missed the last numbers, because I listen in and I say, ‘OK, they’re going to have 2,000 employees … oh, wait, no, they just said 3,000 … no, it’s going to be 4,000.’ ”

A trio of House Democrats from Washington state also took their turns at the microphone. U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer said he was “super-geeked to be here” and talked up Blue Origin’s contribution to international competitiveness in aerospace. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, also took note of commercial competition in the space industry, “which is something we need.”

U.S. Rep. Denny Heck emphasized the long view, gesturing to the lunar lander mockup behind him as he spoke.

“We are going to space, my friends, we are going to colonize space,” Heck said. “In my children’s lifetime, we will colonize the moon. And Blue Moon will be there. In my grandchildren’s or great-grandchildren’s time, we will colonize the rest of the galaxy. In my grandchildren’s time, we will confirm that there is some level of life on other planets. And when we do all these things, Blue Origin will be there and will have been the cause of it.”

After the speeches, it was time for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, conducted just outside the entryway with rain dripping off the eaves. Actually, make that “ceremonies”: Smith wielded the giant scissors twice — first for the benefit of the elected officials, then with a fresh ribbon for the project’s contractors.

Bill Ellis, chief economic development officer for the City of Kent, said he expects Blue Origin and the O’Neill Building to add to a regional space heritage that goes back to the Apollo era. In March, Kent officials will seek to have the Boeing-built Apollo lunar rovers placed on Washington state’s register of historic places.

Citing the roles played by Boeing as well as Blue Origin, Ellis argued that the Kent Valley merits a place in space history alongside Florida’s Space Coast. “In the movies, that’s where NASA has the launches,” he said. “But all of the intellectual property — all that happened here.”

Surrounded by VIPs, Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith wields a giant scissors for the O’Neill Building’s ribbon-cutting ceremony. The entryway bears the company’s motto – “Gradatim Ferociter,” which is Latin for “Step by Step, Ferociously.” (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

During today’s interview, Smith gave a status report on Blue Origin’s projects:

  • In the wake of last month’s uncrewed New Shepard suborbital test flight in West Texas — the 12th of the New Shepard program — Blue Origin is planning a couple of uncrewed demonstration flights to make sure the way is clear to start flying people. Smith said the current plan is to start sending people on suborbital space trips in 2020, but he declined to be more specific on the timing. Smith said he wanted to make sure that the New Shepard team doesn’t feel any undue schedule pressure. “We want to fly when we’re ready, and when we’re safe,” he said.
  • Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine has racked up 6,500 seconds’ worth of test firings so far. “The performance of the engine looks good,” Smith said. “We’re trying to make sure that the durability is what it needs to be for a reusable engine.” He said engines will be delivered to United Launch Alliance this year for use with ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket. The engines are also slated to power New Glenn’s first-stage booster, due for its first launch in 2021.
  • The New Glenn orbital-class rocket is taking shape at Blue Origin’s Florida factory, Smith said. “We actually have produced our first set of development hardware as well as our first fairing,” he said. Blue Origin’s Cape Canaveral launch complex is also “coming together quite quickly,” he said, and the New Glenn recovery ship is being outfitted in Pensacola, Fla. “We should have a christening for that relatively soon,” Smith said.
  • Last month, Blue Origin’s nonprofit educational effort, known as the Club for the Future, flew 8,000 postcards to space and back on New Shepard, and those postcards are now being sent back to the students who sent them in. “We hope to do more along those lines,” he said. “I don’t know if it’ll be every flight, but we’re going to try to do as many flights as we possibly can. If we get the number of cards that we’re targeting, we’ll be stuffing them in every nook and cranny.”

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