Commentary | ULA, Blue Origin and the BE-4 Engine

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Almost overshadowed by NASA’s long-awaited announcement of its Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) awards on Sept. 16 to Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies Corp., totaling $6.8 billion, was another significant announcement made the next day. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, and Tory Bruno, the new president and chief executive of United Launch Alliance, held a joint press conference in Washington. ULA has signed an agreement with Blue Origin for the development of a liquid-oxygen (LOX)/liquefied natural gas (LNG) booster engine with 550,000 pounds of thrust.

This announcement followed months of debate in Washington over the supply vulnerability of the Russian-built RD-180 used on ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. In the last several months, debate has heightened.

In August, the U.S. Air Force issued a request for information regarding “booster propulsion and/or launch system materiel options that could deliver cost-effective, commercially-viable solutions for current and future National Security Space (NSS) launch requirements.” Air Force Space Command, the document stated, “is considering an acquisition strategy to stimulate the commercial development of booster propulsion systems and/or launch systems for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV)-class spacelift applications. The Air Force has relied upon foreign sources for the booster propulsion systems in the past.”

The Air Force has stated it is determined to replace the RD-180 “as soon as practicable.” However, that won’t be in the immediate future, considering the multiyear research, development and certification of such an engine.

Congress has expressed its initial support in this effort by allotting funding in the House and Senate versions of a fiscal year 2015 defense appropriations bill.

The companies issued statements to try to dispel the perceived purpose of the Blue Origin BE-4 engine: “The BE-4 is not a direct replacement for the RD-180 that powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, however two BE-4s are expected to provide the engine thrust for the next generation ULA vehicles. The details related to ULA’s next generation vehicles — which will maintain the key heritage components of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets that provide world class mission assurance and reliability — will be announced at a later date.”

However, ULA posted this on its Twitter account: “We intend to use a pair of BE-4s on the base Atlas with even better performance.” In addition, the handout for the BE-4 states the engine will be built for “meeting both commercial requirements and those of the U.S. Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.”

The Moscow Times entered the fray and trained its sights on Blue Origin’s founder with the blaring headline: “Jeff Bezos Strikes Down Russian Space Rocket Engine Maker.” The article stated that ULA was Energomash’s most important customer and noted that the RD-180 is built for no other launch vehicle but the Atlas 5; in particular, it is not used on any Russian launch vehicles.

Bruno and Bezos surely anticipated the accusations that would be leveled at the BE-4 from supporters of the RD-180. Their statements regarding this could not have been clearer, but those with vested interests in the superb Russian rocket engine were not appeased.

The phrase “next generation vehicles” was almost universally overlooked in the media. Simply put, the Blue Origin BE-4 engine is being primarily developed for a new ULA launch vehicle or vehicles. With this understood, the efforts by the Air Force to seek a replacement to the RD-180 for the Atlas 5 may be on an entirely separate track. Certainly, Aerojet Rocketdyne would want that plum contract to supply engines for the Atlas, but won’t be supplying the engines for the new ULA booster.

Statements by Bezos and Bruno were particularly revealing as to what to expect from this alliance.

“We are going to do for space, and for your lives, what the Internet has done for the information age,” Bruno boldly proclaimed.

“Blue Origin is methodically developing technologies,” Bezos said in a released statement, “to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability, and the BE-4 is a big step forward.”

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. founder Elon Musk responded to the news of the ULA and Blue Origin partnership with relish. “Competitors ganging up against you is the sincerest form of flattery,” he told Bloomberg News.

It would appear, based on these statements, that the BE-4 and its intended launch vehicle or vehicles will be for commercial purposes, possibly human spaceflight. Blue Origin has not been vague about what its plans are for suborbital and orbital human spaceflight, and Bruno’s veiled statement supports this.

Bruno also stated in the press conference that, yes, there had been discussions with other stakeholders in the engine evaluation process, which naturally included Aerojet Rocketdyne. It is clear, at this point, ULA was not totally satisfied with what Aerojet Rocketdyne presented, and chose instead to go with Blue Origin and its BE-4 that is already under development. That choice surprised some in another way, in that ULA chose to go with an engine using the unique propellant of LNG.

Evolution of BE Engine Series

As a commercial aerospace corporation, Bezos’ Blue Origin is a much smaller and lower-profile company than Musk’s SpaceX. The company has not benefited from government largesse to the same degree as SpaceX, although it has received small awards from NASA with respect to commercial development. The Kent, Washington-based firm has been working for more than a decade on the design and development of launch vehicles and spacecraft for suborbital and orbital missions. It has test flight facilities in Texas.

The most powerful rocket engine Blue Origin has built and tested to date is the BE-3. This LOX and liquid hydrogen engine has performed over 160 starts with a combined engine operation of more than 10,000 seconds. It has a thrust of 100,000-110,000 pounds. The engine has completed a suborbital mission duty cycle in support of Blue Origin’s New Shepard capsule. The engine ran at full thrust for 145 seconds, then shut down for 4.5 minutes to simulate a coast sequence. This was followed by the engine’s restart and throttling to 25 percent of rated thrust to mimic a re-entry profile for the reusable suborbital booster, while the capsule lands via parachutes. Bezos stated in the press conference the BE-3 would undergo its first flight test soon.

“We have been focused on the suborbital mission as the starting point to serve as practice for later development of our orbital launch system,” Rob Meyerson, Blue Origin’s president and program manager, told Aviation Week & Space Technology in December. “That way, we intend to prove out underlying technologies while building out a very small and innovative company capable of repeated successes.”

What Meyerson did not reveal at the time was that Blue Origin had been working on development of the much larger BE-4 for nearly two-and-a-half years. The existence of the BE-4 was not made public until the joint press conference in Washington. The engine features an oxygen-rich staged combustion cycle. The only dimensional information on the engine came from Bezos, who said it was roughly 3.7 meters tall.

Blue Origin has built and recently commissioned a new facility near Van Horn, Texas, for development testing of the BE-4. The test stand is capable of handling thrust levels in excess of 1 million pounds. BE-4 engine component testing has been taking place in Kent and in Texas. Blue Origin has revealed that testing has been conducted of a subscale oxygen-rich preburner as well as staged combustion testing of the preburner and main injector assembly. The BE-4 LOX impeller and turbine have been machined; turbopump and valve development testing are upcoming milestones. Full engine testing is scheduled to begin in 2016.

A New Generation of Launch Vehicles

The BE-4 is being developed for the next generation of ULA launch vehicles. The company is continuing the trade studies of the size and scope of those launch vehicles, seeking to bring down their cost relative to the company’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4. Clearly, the SpaceX Falcon 9 and future Falcon Heavy have had a profound effect in shaking up ULA’s status quo.

At the press conference, members of the media tried several times to get Bruno to describe the configuration the new launch vehicles would take. He deflected the questions, saying the trade studies were still ongoing but he looked forward to describing these launch vehicles at a future date.

One key way to dramatically lower launch vehicle costs is by using a reusable booster. Bezos has stated the BE-4 is designed to be reusable, so by extension the booster itself may also be reusable. ULA has no experience with reusable first or second stages, which explains why trade studies are ongoing.

Bruno did make clear, however, that ULA intended to employ existing upper stages of the Atlas and Delta rockets for these new launch vehicles. This was what was meant by “which will maintain the key heritage components of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets that provide world class mission assurance and reliability” in the company’s statement.

Both Delta 4 and Atlas 5 launch vehicles use variants of the venerable LOX/liquid hydrogen RL10 engine built by Aerojet Rocketdyne. On the Delta 4, the second stage employs an RL10B-2 having 24,750 pounds of thrust. The RL10A-2 as part of the Centaur upper stage on the Atlas 5 has a range of 16,500–22,300 pounds of thrust.

For Bezos, these new launch vehicles will provide the orbital capability for his biconic Space Vehicle. The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon V2 will eventually be joined by another human spaceflight capsule, built by Blue Origin, in low Earth orbit. ULA will probably use existing launch sites in Florida and potentially California rather than build new launch pads. Conceivably, Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, which will have a crew service structure for the Boeing CST-100 atop the Atlas 5, would be adaptable to Blue Origin’s vehicle.

At the press conference, Bezos explained his motivation and passion about spaceflight. “If you’re not passionate about space, go figure out something else to do,” he said, “because this business is too hard if you’re not passionate about it.”

 

Anthony Young is the author of “The Saturn V F-1 Engine: Powering Apollo into History,” published by Springer-Praxis. He is a consultant and speaker on commercial space business, and can be reached at [email protected] This article originally appeared in The Space Review, a SpaceNews affiliate, for which Young has been a contributor since 2004.