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ULA taps Blue Origin for powerful new rocket engine

Posted: September 17, 2014

United Launch Alliance announced Wednesday it is teaming with Blue Origin, a secretive space company led by founder Jeff Bezos, to develop a new U.S.-made rocket engine that could replace the Russian engine used to power Atlas 5 first stage boosters.

A model of the BE-4 engine presented Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington. Credit: ULA
The arrangement comes after building concerns over ULA's reliance on Russian propulsion to loft U.S. national security satellites into space, and ULA's chief executive said Wednesday the choice of Blue Origin as a new engine provider is part of a potential overhaul of the company's Atlas and Delta rocket fleet used to send up spacecraft for the Pentagon, NASA and commercial customers.

"I think it's pretty clear it's time for a 21st century booster engine," Bezos told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington. "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."

Formed in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture by Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., United Launch Alliance announced a review of new rocket engine concepts in June.

ULA's selection of Blue Origin's Blue Engine-4, or BE-4, left out the company's primary engine vendor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, which builds powerplants for the Atlas and Delta upper stages, plus the hydrogen-fueled RS-68 engine at the bottom of ULA's Delta 4 rocket.

"We selected Blue for a couple of reasons," said Tory Bruno, ULA's president and CEO. "First, they are way ahead ... Also, they have this really innovative technology that's going to allow us to modernize, increase performance and lower our recurring costs."

Blue Origin has already completed three years of development on the BE-4 engine.

"It's 550,000 pounds of thrust, it has a very low recurring cost and low life cycle cost," Bezos said. "Cost to space is a very important factor, so basically cost and reliability are the two driving factors. It's (fueled by) liquefied natural gas, it's reusable and it's built, tested, designed and engineered 100 percent in the United States."

Bruno said the engine could be integrated on a ULA launcher within about four years, in half the time other experts projected.

"There is no way to rush a rocket development process," Bezos said. "You can't cut corners. It needs to be methodical and deliberate, so the reason we can accelerate the timeframe of the BE-4 is because we're already three years into the process." founder Jeff Bezos discusses Blue Origin's partnership with United Launch Alliance in a briefing with reporters Wednesday. Credit: ULA/Blue Origin
Bezos said ULA has committed a "very significant dollar amount investment" to complete development of the BE-4 engine, which Blue Origin has so far funded internally and intends to use on its own space launcher.

"There's a second thing which is very unusual -- probably the rarest of things that you can ever find in a rocket engine -- and that is that the BE-4 rocket engine is fully funded," Bezos said.

Budget legislation under consideration in Congress would give the Air Force funding to devote to a new rocket engine project managed in a public-private partnership between government and industry. While the BE-4 engine program announced Wednesday is a purely commercial effort, Bruno said ULA's stakeholders -- presumably including the Air Force, the company's biggest customer -- were kept informed of the private engine initiative.

The White House released a policy statement in June against a government-funded rocket engine development program. Citing an independent study commissioned by the Pentagon, the White House said a U.S.-built rocket engine and a new rocket to host it would cost $4.5 billion and take eight years to design, test and fly.

Officials declined to reveal financial details of the agreement between ULA and Blue Origin.

Deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia in the wake of a Russian-backed rebellion in Ukraine raised questions about the viability of continuing the use of the RD-180 engine for U.S. military satellite launches.

Built near Moscow by NPO Energomash, an RD-180 engine burns a refined type of kerosene and generates 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

Boasting a perfect success record, the RD-180 engine powers the first stage of the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket, one of two launchers that put the bulk of the U.S. government's national security payloads into orbit. ULA also builds and launches the Delta 4 rocket, which has a U.S.-built booster engine.

Exports of RD-180 rocket engines to the United States have continued despite threats issued by Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin in May that Russia would cut off the supply of engines for launches on military missions.

ULA took delivery of two RD-180 engines in August, with three more engines due to arrive from Russia this fall.

Making its 49th flight, an Atlas 5 rocket powered by a Russian RD-180 booster engine lifted off Tuesday from Cape Canaveral. The RD-180 engine has a perfect flight record. Credit: ULA
Concerns over the Atlas 5 rocket's use of Russian rocket engines was amplified in April, when ULA rival SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force to overturn a sole-source $11 billion contract awarded to ULA for 28 rocket launches through the end of the decade.

Led by Elon Musk, an Internet pioneer like Bezos, SpaceX claimed it could perform nearly all of the launches at a fraction of the cost of ULA, but the Air Force says SpaceX did not meet technical certification criteria when ULA won the launch deal.

Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command, said Tuesday that SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket could be certified by Dec. 1 to be eligible to compete for contracts to loft the military's most valuable satellite missions.

A judge in the U.S. federal claims court has not ruled on the suit, which is now in arbitration.

Blue Origin's BE-4 engine uses an oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle, employs a single nozzle, and burns liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas, a fuel that makes the engine cheaper, less complex, and easier to reuse, according to a fact sheet released by Blue Origin.

"It is a single turbopump, one shaft," Bezos said. "It's as simple as it can be while still being high-performing and highly reliable."

"The BE-4 is not a one-for-one replacement for the RD-180, which is a kerosene burning engine," Bruno said. "What we intend to do is to use a pair of these on our baseline Atlas vehicle that would provide actually higher performance -- higher thrust level -- together, than what we have now.

A new rocket booster with two BE-4 engines would produce 1.1 million pounds of thrust.

"We intend to stack on top of that the common components that we've developed in the upper stages that we already have in our Atlas and Delta family," Bruno said. "So it's really inserting an engine, modifications to the rocket to accommodate that, and then reaping the benefit of that higher performance."

ULA did not quantify cost savings associated with the BE-4 engine, but Bruno said it is "clear to us that they're substantial. We are going to pass those along to our customers."

Blue Origin's engineering team, based in Kent, Wash., and at a test facility in West Texas, has tested sub-scale components of the BE-4 engine, including elements of its oxygen-rich preburner and staged combustion testing of the preburner and main injector assembly, according to a fact sheet.

Next up will be tests of the engine's turbopump and main valves.

Blue Origin also completed construction of an engine test stand in West Texas to accommodate up to a million pounds of thrust.

Full-scale engine testing should begin in 2016, with a first flight of the BE-4 engine in 2019, ULA said in a press release.

ULA's family of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, sporting different shroud sizes and booster configurations tailored to specific types of payloads. Credit: ULA
According to Bruno, ULA is working on trade studies to design the company's next generation of launchers.

"We're four years away from our first flight, then we have to pass through a certification process that is appropriate to whatever degree of change that the vehicle has experienced," Bruno said. "So there are a number of years when the existing Atlas and Delta with the existing engines would be flying before the BE-4 is ready, then there would be an overlap where its feathered in to the future."

"Will this be only one engine for one type of vehicle? Trades are still underway," Bruno said.

He told reporters ULA could unveil the design of its new rocket family by the end of the year, leaving open the possibility of changes to the company's Delta 4 rocket.

"Our goal is to make the engine so operable, so low-cost and so reliable that ULA would be crazy to use anything else," Bezos said.

Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.