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Blue Fire in Rocket City

Test Stand 4670 and a BE-4 mounted in the stand during fit checks in 2022
Credit: Left NASA, Right Blue Origin

Blue Origin made some noise in Huntsville, as the former Saturn V test stand, Test Stand 4670, saw its first firing from its new operators. The short test, which took place on August 3rd, lasted between 30 and 40 seconds according to locals who heard the test firing. The test utilized a BE-3U, the upper stage engine planned for use on New Glenn. This marked the first test firing on 4670 since 1998.

First used in 1965 for full scale test firings of the Saturn V’s first stage, 4670 quickly became a busy site for NASA as they qualified the design of the Saturn V. Later tests of the full Saturn V would be moved to the Stennis Space Center, where the more remote location would provide a better testing environment for the S-IC and its 7.7 million pounds of thrust.

The evolution of Test Stand 4670 prior to Blue Origin’s arrival
Credit: Library of Congress

The test stand would be modified in the 1970s to support testing of the Space Shuttle External Tank. After its stint as a cryogenic test stand, rocket engines would return as it would become a testing ground for RS-25 “test mule” engines, where modified engines would be test fired. During this time period, the stand was briefly known as the Advanced Technology Engine Test Stand. 4670 was last used in 1998 for full duration test firing of the RD-180, to familiarize Lockheed Martin engineers with the engine and its operations ahead of the Atlas III’s debut flight.

Blue Origin has been working on renovating 4670 since April of 2019, when they entered an agreement with NASA to use the Marshall Spaceflight Center test stand for BE-4 and BE-3U testing. This multi-year renovation involved removing old corroded hardware from the previously mothballed test site. The site will be focused on qualification testing of flight engines rather than development testing, which will remain at their XEEx testing site in Texas.

As part of their lease of stand 4670, Blue Origin took on the costs of renovations and any incurred cost to NASA for using the stand. This approach was relatively new for engine testing facilities, but similar to that of launch pads which require extensive bespoke equipment for each rocket. This approach is what allows Blue to extensively equip the stand for rapid testing of engines as they ramp up the BE-4 and BE-3U program.

To support the production ramp up, a new production facility in Huntsville has been built for the engines. Blue Origin is anticipating needing to produce upwards of 50 BE-4 engines a year to support both their in house New Glenn program, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur program. BE-3U’s will be slightly less in demand, as they are only used on New Glenn, however they will still need at least 24 engines a year to support Blue’s previously announced plans of flying New Glenn at least once a month.

Blue Origin has been moving quickly since their first test firing, with at least one more test already confirmed from the historic stand, taking place on August 8th. Noise Alerts from the Redstone Arsenal Twitter/X page have corresponded to these tests, with one going out on August 10th as well, but no test firing being reported from the Marshall Spaceflight Center.

The world of spaceflight continues to evolve, with companies new and old fighting for a place at the commercial launch table. However, despite this evolution, echoes of the past are reverberating through, as launch pads and test stands are revitalized and returned to their former glory. With the return of 4670, Rocket City will once again be alive with the distant rumble of rocket engines.

UPDATE: It was confirmed on August 21, 2023 that a BE-3U was used on the test. The article has been updated to reflect this.

Edited By Nik Alexander, Beverly

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