ULA and Blue Origin Move Forward with BE-4 Plan

ULA and Blue Origin Move Forward with BE-4 Plan

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin announced an agreement today for expanding production of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine that ULA wants to use for its new Vulcan rocket.  The announcement takes place against the backdrop of reports that another rocket engine company, Aerojet Rocketdyne, is trying to buy ULA, which would, at best, complicate the ULA/Blue Origin plan.

ULA and Blue Origin, founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, revealed amid much fanfare last fall that they were teaming on ULA’s new Vulcan rocket that is intended to eventually replace the two rockets ULA currently uses, Atlas V and Delta IV.  Congress is insisting that use of Russian RD-180 engines that currently power the Atlas V be discontinued by 2019 for national security launches, the mainstay of ULA’s launch business.   Blue Origin’s BE-4 (Blue Engine 4) is viewed by ULA as the most mature domestically made engine that could replace the RD-180s.  Today’s announcement said that BE-4 “offers the fastest path” to a domestic replacement for RD-180s and will “achieve qualification flight in 2017 to support the first Vulcan flight in 2019.”

ULA and the Air Force are trying to convince Congress to provide more flexibility on the 2019 RD-180 cutoff date since a first flight in 2019 is not the same as having a launch vehicle full certified for launching expensive national security payloads.  The House is sympathetic to that argument in its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but the Senate Armed Services Committee is holding fast to 2019.  The two sides are currently trying to reach agreement on a compromise version of the NDAA.

BE-4 uses an innovative design based on liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane as propellant rather than traditional LOX/kerosene.  ULA President Tory Bruno champions Blue Origin’s engine, but also said earlier this year that the company is keeping Aerojet Rocketdyne’s (AJR) new AR1 LOX/kerosene engine in mind as a backup.  Two days ago the Wall Street Journal reported that AJR is bidding to purchase ULA for about $2 billion.  If that deal were to go through — a big if — it clearly would imperil the use of BE-4 for Vulcan.

Today’s ULA/Blue Origin announcement suggests that those two companies are continuing on course nonetheless.  Bezos said the new agreement is “an important step toward building BE-4s at the production rate needed” for Vulcan.

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.