United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced it is partnering with the highly secretive Blue Origin aerospace company—privately owned by billionaire and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos—to jointly fund the development of a powerful new American rocket engine by Blue Origin that could eventually replace the Russian built engines currently used in the Atlas V rocket and whose future supply is questionable. Competing with SpaceX is another critical goal that cannot be overstated.
A model of Blue Origin’s American-made BE-4 engine was unveiled and discussed at a joint ULA/Blue Origin press conference held Sept. 17 at the National Press Club in Washington D.C., with Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and ULA’s new president and chief executive officer Tory Bruno.
The deal inked by Blue Origin and ULA will actually accelerate the development of the commercial BE-4 rocket engine, which is fueled by liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas (LNG) and delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. LNG is a commercially available form of methane.
ULA has had a big incentive to replace the Russian built RD-180 engine used in the Atlas V first stage ever since Cold War-like tensions between the U.S. and Russia escalated following Russia’s confrontational actions in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea this spring and a threat by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin to cut off deliveries of the venerable engine for U.S. military launches.
Full scale engine testing could start as soon as 2016.
Indeed the Russian threat underscored the urgent need to develop a new U.S.-made engine for the long term since our national security launches were put at serious risk of a near standstill or serious delays and since there is currently no near-term replacement for the Russian-made RD-180s.
“This agreement ensures ULA will remain the most cost-efficient, innovative and reliable company launching the nation’s most important national security, civil, human and commercial missions,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of ULA, in a statement.
Beyond the supply issue, economics looms large as virtually every rocket maker is reevaluating all aspects of their programs to cut manufacturing costs and production and processing times in face of an onslaught from Elon Musk and his low-priced, new space company’s family of SpaceX Falcon rockets and Merlin engines that are capturing scores of lucrative launch contracts from customers worldwide.
ULA was created in 2006 as a 50/50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that combined their Delta and Atlas rocket fleets under one roof with an unparalleled record of success and a launch rate of nearly one a month.
But the combined Russian and SpaceX threats have changed the future outlook of everything.
Bezos stated that Blue Origin has already invested a significant sum of their own funds and three years of development effort into the BE-4 engine at the firms test facilities in West Texas.
“Blue Origin has demonstrated its ability to develop high-performance rocket engines and we are excited to bring together the best minds in engineering, supply chain management and commercial business practices to create an all-new affordable, reliable, American rocket engine that will create endless possibilities for the future of space launch,” says Bruno.
The BE-4 would be privately funded and developed—with no U.S. government funding at this juncture—and be available for ULA’s hugely successful and reliable Atlas and Delta rocket families as well as next generation rockets launching military, commercial, and science payloads.
Some in Congress have urged the Obama Administration to immediately start development of a new liquid fueled engine under a public-private partnership, to counter the Russian threat. Costs have been estimated at about $1 billion.
ULA and Blue Origin will not divulge their development costs at this time, citing its proprietary nature. They will only say its “low.”
Under the agreement ULA is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability to power their rocket launches for national security, civil, human, and commercial missions.
ULA’s human mission requirement would include those covered by NASA’s new commercial crew contract awarded to Boeing involving launches of the CST-100 “space taxi” with American astronauts atop the Atlas V rocket starting by the end of 2017.
Furthermore, the new engine and its integration into the Atlas V or any other rocket ULA intends for human launches will have to once again meet NASA’s stringent human rating certification requirements to be acceptable for crewed missions.
The agreement states that the BE-4 is available for future Blue Origin space systems as well. Blue Origin was one of the competitors in NASA’s commercial crew development program.
“The team at Blue Origin is methodically developing technologies to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability, and the BE-4 is a big step forward,” said Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin.
ULA’s plans to use a pair of BE-4 engines to power each ULA first stage booster to generate 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff. By comparison the Atlas V RD-180 engine generates about 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level with LOX and kerosene propellants.
To support a swift development of the BE-4, Blue Origin has already commissioned a new large test facility to support full engine testing near Van Horn, Texas, that can support thrust test levels greater than one million pounds-force, according to a Blue Origin fact sheet.
“With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great U.S.-made rocket engine,” Bezos adds.
The BE-4 will incorporate state-of-the-art design and manufacturing techniques while keeping recurring costs as low as possible to compete with SpaceX and other launch providers both domestic and foreign.
“I think it’s pretty clear it’s time for a 21st century booster engine,” Bezos told reporters at the National Press Club briefing on Sept. 17.
“The great engines of the past were truly remarkable machines in their own right. The engines that you remember built in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were remarkable pieces of hardware, but we have tools and capabilities, software simulations, computational horsepower that the builders of those great engines could have only dreamed about.”
“Engine component testing is underway at Blue Origin test facilities in Kent, Washington, and Texas. Testing to date includes subscale oxygen-rich preburner development and staged combustion testing of the preburner and main injector assembly,” according to Blue Origin.
After that Blue Origin notes that the next major development milestone will be testing of the turbopumps and main valves.
The BE-4 builds on the heritage of Blue Origin’s hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine which produces 110,000-lbf thrust at sea level.
Bruno noted that the BE-4 could be installed on a ULA rocket in about four years for launch in 2019.
Stay tuned here for continuing developments.
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