United Launch Alliance Turns to Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin for Next Rocket Engine

By Doug Mohney September 18, 2014

Jeff Bezos first created an e-commerce empire in Amazon.com. Now he's building the newest U.S. rocket engine in partnership with the aerospace elite without any taxpayer dollars.  It sounds like an amazing fairy tale, but it's true.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin formally announced today, September 17, that the two companies would work together to complete development on the BE-4 (Blue Engine-4) for use in the Atlas and Delta family of launch vehicles.  

Shunning the limelight, Blue Origin has quietly built a series of rocket motors in support of its large plans to get into putting cargo and people into space. BE-3, a liquid oxygen/liquid hydrogen motor, has logged over "ten thousand seconds" of run time on the stand and is ready to start flight testing, said Bezos, CEO and founder of the Blue Origin aerospace company.  BE-3 will power the company's New Shepard reusable suborbital vehicle.

Blue Origin's long term goal continues to be building a large rocket capable of putting astronauts into space.  Standing 12 feet tall, BE-4 is a liquid methane (natural gas)/liquid oxygen engine that puts out 550,000 pounds of thrust at sea level and would be used as a part of a larger rocket.  Blue Origin has put three years of development work into BE-4, including building a testing facility in a remote part of Texas, with engine component testing taking place at facilities in Kent, Washington and Texas.  Full engine testing is expected to begin in 2016 with flight-ready hardware in 2017.

Billed by Bezos as a "twenty-first century rocket engine," BE-4 is designed for low recurring costs using state of the art design and manufacturing techniques.  It will also be reusable, part of Blue Origin's larger launch vehicle designed to put people into space. Using liquid natural gas (LNG) simplifies a lot of plumbing, including the need for helium pressurization systems. Helium is expensive, while LNG is easier to work with than colder liquid hydrogen or more stable but messier kerosene.

Everything on BE-4 is made in the USA, which is where ULA and its current public relations problem come into play. The Atlas launch vehicle is the pride of ULA, having successfully taken 88 payloads in a row to orbit—including weather satellites, GPS, U.S. spy satellites, and NASA's probes to Mars and deep space. "ULA has put a satellite into orbit almost every month for the past eight years," said Bezos at the press conference.

However, Atlas today uses a single Russian-made RD-180 engine in its first stage.   No RD-180, no Atlas launch

Russia's annexation of parts of Ukraine has lead to economic sanctions by Western nations, followed by veiled threats by Russian officials to stop shipping RD-180 engines.  So far, these threats have not been carried out with the current reality being Russia needs the cash as badly as the U.S. needs the engines.

Congress and the U.S. Department of Defense, ULA's biggest customer by a wide margin, decided being dependent upon Russia for a major part of a vital launch system wasn't a good idea and started making noises about funding a U.S.-made replacement engine.  Aerojet Rocketdyne offered to build a new engine from scratch in about for years for a cost of about $1 billion in R&D money provided by Congress.

ULA did its homework, looking at all the U.S. alternatives, and found Blue Origin 3 years into a 7 year cycle to build a new engine.  ULA agreed to jointly fund finishing the BE-4 with Blue Origin.  ULA gets a Made-in-The-USA engine, Blue Origin gets cash to finish R&D and a customer for its engines, no tax dollars involved -- a win-win for everyone involved. 

Two BE-4s will power each ULA first stage, providing a net of 1,100,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff. First flight with the new engine is expected to occur by 2019, with ULA working on studies to figure out the best configuration and system trades for the next generation of Atlas rockets.

BE-4 is expected to bring cost savings as well over other available engines, with ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno saying savings will be passed along to customers –another sore point with Atlas V. Depending on how and who does the accounting, an Atlas V costs between $200 million to $400 million per flight.  ULA has been widely criticized for the high cost of its vehicles, leaving the door open for SpaceX and others to book billions of dollars of business in the commercial launch sector while pricing remains high for government customers.    The company is already examining ways it can drive down costs for existing flights, and the future Atlas will no doubt incorporate ways to further reduce expenses.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing Editor

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