In about two weeks Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos will mark a triumphant moment after 21 years in the spaceflight business. He will climb aboard his New Shepard launch system, blast above the Kármán line into outer space, float around inside his capsule, and then return to Earth beneath parachutes.
It seems unlikely that everyone in the space community will be celebrating. Bezos made his fortune at Amazon through competitive pricing and timely delivery of goods to his customers worldwide. But so far at least, his Blue Origin space company has been a less reliable vendor.
This has been especially of concern to United Launch Alliance, which is relying on Blue Origin-built engines for its new Vulcan rocket. The US Space Force is also watching, as it is counting on the Vulcan booster to help launch some of its most precious satellites into orbit. Blue Origin’s powerful BE-4 rocket engine, which burns methane and liquid oxygen, is years late.
Privately, multiple sources say, the relationship between Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance is not good. “There is great concern about this engine development,” one person in the industry said. “It’s much more than Tory Bruno is showing publicly. There is great concern that Blue is not putting enough attention and priority on the engine.”
For years, United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno had been saying the new Vulcan rocket, powered by two BE-4 engines, would launch in 2021. However, he recently told Aviation Week the first launch would slip into 2022. Bruno said this was due primarily to the mission’s customer, Astrobotic, whose Moon lander was not ready. Technically, Bruno said, Vulcan still had a chance to be ready for a 2021 launch.
This seems highly unlikely because it is already July, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) still does not have a pair of flight engines. After receiving the flight engines from Blue Origin, ULA needs to attach them to the Vulcan rocket, roll it to the launch pad, and conduct a lengthy series of tests before a hot-fire ignition. After this hot-fire test, the rocket will be rolled back to the hangar and prepared for an actual launch attempt. As of January, Bruno was saying this hot fire test with the flight engines would take place this summer. That will no longer happen.
In response to a question from Ars, ULA declined to offer an updated timeline for when it expects to take delivery of flight-ready BE-4 engines from Blue Origin. The company also declined to comment on any tensions with Blue Origin.
“He’s protecting Blue Origin,” one source said of Bruno’s lack of public criticism of the BE-4 engine delay. “It does no good to throw Blue Origin under the bus.”
Bezos’ company has not been forthcoming about why the BE-4 engine has been so late. Development of the engine, which has 550,000 pounds of thrust and is more powerful than a Space Shuttle Main Engine, has been going on since 2011. However, there has been a lot of turnover in leadership of Blue Origin’s propulsion program, with Bill Kruse and Mike Krene leaving the company in 2018, and Kruse’s replacement, Dannette Smith, only lasting about a year before leaving in August 2019. Tory Bruno has confirmed there have been problems with the turbomachinery inside the engine, but he has said those problems have been addressed.
Nearly seven years have passed since Blue Origin and ULA first announced their plans to work together on spaceflight in September 2014. Bezos had invested heavily in the BE-4 engine development, needing it to power his own large rocket, which would become known as New Glenn. Having ULA as a customer would help offset some of those costs.
Since then, however, Blue Origin has not been the best of partners. A couple of years after the BE-4 announcement, Blue Origin changed its public stance on bidding for national security launch contracts. Officials said the New Glenn rocket would, in fact, compete with Vulcan for lucrative military launches. For many engineers and executives at ULA, this felt like betrayal, because without US Space Force contracts the company likely would not exist.
So why did ULA decide to go with an unproven company like Blue Origin for its engines? Back at the 2014 announcement, Bruno said, “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.”
At the time, Bruno and other ULA executives liked the price and performance of the BE-4 engine. With the methane-fueled first stage and a planned “ACES” second stage as well as six strap-on boosters, the Vulcan rocket’s performance could exceed that of the costly Delta IV Heavy booster by as much as 30 percent. ACES has since been scrapped in favor of the more conventional Centaur upper stage, but Vulcan remains a powerful heavy lift rocket. It is basically ready to go—except for its engines.
Vulcan is essential to the future of ULA as it struggles to compete with US-based launch competitor SpaceX. Vulcan should be both less expensive to fly than ULA’s existing rockets and, crucially, be powered by engines manufactured in the United States. ULA’s current workhorse rocket, the Atlas V, uses Russian-made engines. As relations started to deteriorate between the US and Russia last decade, this became untenable for Congress.
Blue Origin’s delays have therefore frustrated both ULA as well as Space Force officials, who are eager to begin flying on Vulcan. This has resulted in additional tensions as engineers push through the final design of the BE-4 engines, sources said. Blue Origin wants to optimize the BE-4 for reuse on its New Glenn rocket’s first stage, which is intended to fly many times. ULA may eventually reuse these engines, but for now it will fly them in expendable mode. Therefore, engineers from ULA and the Space Force, in the name of expediency, are pressing for a final design less amenable to reuse.
AR1 back for some fun?
ULA selected the BE-4 engine for Vulcan over an engine proposed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the most storied rocket engine developer in the United States. Aerojet said its AR1 engine, which burns kerosene and liquid oxygen, would be a better and more reliable choice for Vulcan. However, ULA ultimately decided to go with the BE-4 engine because of its lower cost, and its estimate that the BE-4 engine was about 18 months ahead of the AR1 in development.
So in light of the BE-4 delays might ULA reconsider the AR1 engine? Sources said this was unlikely, at least for now. Jessica Rye, a spokeswoman for United Launch Alliance, told Ars, “There are no changes to our current plan.”
However, this may not always be the case. One industry official said some work, in the background, has been ongoing for potentially using the AR1 engine. Neither ULA nor Aerojet commented on questions about this. In a written statement, Aerojet said it continues “to have discussions with several potential customers. We believe that the AR1 is ideally suited to power the core stage of medium-lift launch vehicles, especially when combined with an RL10-powered upper stage.”
Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage is powered by RL-10 engines. And it is also important to note that Aerojet and ULA will soon be in the same family. Founded in 2006, ULA is co-owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Later this year, Lockheed is expected to finalize its acquisition of Aerojet. So a co-owner of ULA will also own the manufacturer of the AR1 engine.
Still, it would not be easy for ULA to use the AR1 engine right away. Although Aerojet completed assembly of its first full-scale development engine in December 2020, the engine is years away from flying. Aerojet did not provide Ars with a schedule for AR1 tests, saying only that it was being “driven by test-stand capabilities.” Complicating matters is that some, or perhaps most, of the AR1 development team has departed. One of the AR1’s senior program managers, Linda Cova, left Aerojet to work for Blue Origin in March 2021.
Moreover, under its current design, Vulcan’s propulsion and ground systems are built around using the methane-fueled BE-4 engine, not the kerosene-burning AR1 engine. Changing Vulcan’s engine now would require significant time-consuming and expensive modifications.
Also, if ULA instead used the AR1 engine as a “drop in replacement” for the Atlas V rocket’s Russian-made engines, this new rocket would not be powerful enough. Vulcan is intended to replace both the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy rockets, and a modified Atlas V rocket would not have the heavy lift capability that ULA needs to satisfy its government customers.
ULA may not be happy with how the partnership has worked out, one industry source told Ars, before adding, “but for now they have no recourse but to make the marriage with Blue Origin work.”