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Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin set for third rocket plant expansion in Huntsville

Blue Origin is planning a third major expansion in Huntsville in three years, a testament city officials say to the city’s worthiness as the permanent home to Space Command.

The aerospace company owned by Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin has emerged as one of the top commercial spaceflight companies as the country has placed a renewed effort on returning to the moon and eventually to Mars. The company’s Huntsville presence includes a rocket building plant in Cummings Research Park.

On Thursday, the city council approved the sale of 14.83 acres to Blue Origin that’s adjacent to its already sprawling campus at the price of $1.427 million.

Blue Origin opened a 400,000 facility in 2020, then announced a 200,000 square foot expansion last year that’s near completion. With the latest land purchase, the company wants to essentially duplicate its 400,000 building, according to Shane Davis, the city’s director of urban and economic development.

The expansion on the land purchase approved by the city council will push Blue Origin to about 1 million square feet in Huntsville.

“It just shows we’re still ready,” Davis said of Space Command. “The space industry continues to expand here in a damn big way. The workforce is here.”

Davis went on to say that Blue Origin officials said of the north Alabama workforce, “They are like, the workforce here, the quality, it’s better than any other location we have. (Huntsville is) just phenomenal.”

Forbes declared in 2015 that Huntsville has the most engineers per capita in the country — a point of pride the city has long embraced and promotes with little prompting. Cummings Research Park, Blue Origin’s home in Huntsville, is also the second-largest research park in the nation.

The news of Blue Origin’s latest expansion conveniently coincides with Alabama’s desperate fight to bring Space Command to the Rocket City. Identified almost 2½ years ago as the preferred location by the Air Force, the city is still awaiting a final decision on the command’s permanent headquarters.

With the announcement Thursday of an investigation by the House Armed Services Committee, chaired by Alabama congressman Mike Rogers, into changes in the selection criteria, Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle gave a sharply-worded statement during the council meeting underscoring the lack of trust in an apparently changing selection process that has repeatedly revealed Huntsville’s Redstone Arsenal as the best site.

“It now appears some are trying to change results and give this selection to another community,” Battle said. “This breaks our trust in the selection process and the agencies administering the competition. I’m saddened that the integrity of this process has come to the point that an investigation is necessary.”

As a testament to its commitment to Huntsville, Blue Origin has been restoring Marshall Space Flight Center’s historic Test Stand 4670, which NASA leased to the company to test its engines. Blue Origin is building its BE-3 and BE-4 rocket engines in Huntsville.

Last week, Blue Origin was selected by NASA to build the lunar lander for the Artemis V moon mission scheduled for launch in 2029 that will be preceded by an uncrewed mission to test the lunar lander. Both missions will be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket that’s now in development.

The Huntsville-built BE-3 rocket engine powers the New Glenn rocket.

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