Amazon.com Billionaire Bezos to Build Powerful New Rocket Engine for United Launch Alliance

Jezz Bezos unveils new model of the Blue Origin BE-4 liquid fueled rocket engine at a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.,  on Sept. 17, 2014. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Billionaire and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos unveils new model of the Blue Origin BE-4 liquid fueled rocket engine at a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 2014. Credit: United Launch Alliance

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.

Display model of Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine at a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.,  on Sept. 17, 2014. Credit: United Launch Alliance

Display model of Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine at a media briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 17, 2014. Credit: United Launch Alliance

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.

Schematic of Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine. Credit: Blue Origin

Schematic of Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine. Credit: Blue Origin

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.

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a man rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA

Artist’s concept of Boeing’s CST-100 space taxi atop a man rated ULA Atlas-V rocket showing new crew access tower and arm at Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fl. Credit: ULA

“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.

Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

Atlas V launch of classified CLIO satellite powered by Russian made RD-180 engines on Sept. 16, 2014. Photo Credit: Alan Walters / AmericaSpace

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.

Ken Kremer

 

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14 comments to Amazon.com Billionaire Bezos to Build Powerful New Rocket Engine for United Launch Alliance

  • john hare

    Good to see companies stepping up to the plate. Focusing too much on one provider is a recipe for eventual stagnation. As a SpaceX fan, I would like to see other companies put serious pressure on them to hold their feet to the fire. That has a twofold benefit. SpaceX has to perform to keep the current pricing lead, and any stumble has competition there to pick up the baton.

  • The development of large rocket engines has been in decline in this country for decades. Hopefully the latest news from Blue Origin and the continued success of SpaceX’s Merlin family of rocket engines is the beginning of the reversal of this decline.

    http://www.drewexmachina.com/2014/06/09/a-history-of-american-rocket-engine-development/

  • Maybe, just maybe, it will be individuals like Bezos who will return the United States to a leadership role in manned space exploration.

  • Tracy The Troll

    Wait…Has Blue Origin launched a single anything.

    “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.

    Isn’t ULA a government monopoly …So all of this is true because they are the only launch provider….Right?

    • Joe

      Tracy,

      It is hard to know what Blue Origin’s plans are because they are even more secretive than SpaceX. In fairness to Blue Origin they have some justification in doing this because (after a brief flirtation with Commercial Crew) they are doing all their work with private money and without attacking other government funded programs in an attempt to get that money transferred to them. This makes them very different from SpaceX.

      While they have not made an orbital launch they have been doing a great deal of design/test stand work. They must have enough information to convince ULA that the BE-4 is a good bet. I say that because ULA is apparently willing to invest their own money (not the taxpayers) in it.

      Look at it this way: (1) if they succeed everybody wins ULA, Blue Origin, and space fans, (2) if they fail it is their money (not the taxpayers).

  • john hare

    Look at it this way: (1) if they succeed everybody wins ULA, Blue Origin, and space fans, (2) if they fail it is their money (not the taxpayers).

    That is my idea of real commercial operations.

  • Tracy the troll

    Isn’t this all government money that were talking about here. Where did ULA get the money to pay a blue origin ? Didn’t blue origon buy all the delta clipper product. why hasn’t there been any launch of that?

    • Joe

      Tracy,

      ULA’s money will come out of their profits. You may not approve of how they got those profits, but it is legally their money that they do not have to risk on this or any other endeavor. They (at least as of now) are not asking for government subsidies to develop the BE-4.

      Blue Origin did not have to buy the Delta Clipper “product” because it was available on the public record after the cancellation of the X-33 program. What Blue Origin did do is hire key Delta Clipper personnel. Never the less the work on the BE-3 and Be-4 has all been done on private money.

      • Tracy The Troll

        Joe,
        Didn’t we just give Boeing $4B for the CST100 crew vehicle and wasn’t some of that “supposed” to be funneled to Blue Origin? Is any of the X-33 tech part of the Public Record?

        Good for Bezos using his own money for whatever…But it does kind of look like he just paid back for all of that development cost for BE-1,2,3 and 4…Doesn’t it ?

        • Joe

          Tracy,

          We seem to have reversed roles, now I am being positive and you are the skeptic.

          “wasn’t some of that “supposed” to be funneled to Blue Origin?”

          Early news accounts seemed to indicate that, but not lately. I think they were confusing commercial crew with the ULA/Blue Origin joint project. If any one has more information, I will be happy to be educated.

          “But it does kind of look like he just paid back for all of that development cost for BE-1,2,3 and 4…Doesn’t it ?”

          If he is, he appears to be being paid from ULA profits not from the taxpayers. Again as long as that turns out to be the case, I have no problem with it.

          • Tracy The Troll

            Joe
            If we learned that the BE-4 would be 100% reusable.. I would jump for joy…Was any of the X-33 in the Public Record? I didn’t think so..Just hoping

            • Joe

              Not sure what you mean by the X-33 as there were three competitors, but most of the technical research should be available (though perhaps not in any organized fashion).

              If you check Blue Origins statements you will find that there intent is for both the BE-3 and BE-4 to be reusable.

  • Jeff Wright

    I wanted the Pyrios F-1 engine from Dynetics myself.