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Blue Origin completes delivery of the two BE-4 engines for ULA’s second Vulcan launch

Blue Origin this week completed delivery of the two BE-4 engines needed for the second launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for sometime this fall.

That launch was originally targeting an April launch, but according to official announcements has been delayed until the fall because final ground testing of its payload, Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle, is not complete. It appears that Blue Origin also contributed to that delay, as it is now obvious that its engines were not available as planned in time for that April launch.

This delay also raises questions about Blue Origin’s ability to ramp up BE-4 engine production to meet the needs of ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Both have large launch contracts with Amazon to launch its Kuiper constellation, while ULA also has almost as many contracts with the U.S. military. To meet those contracts, Blue Origin will have to produce several hundred BE-4 engines yearly in the very near future. Right now it appears it can only produce about one per year.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • V-Man

    I wonder if the engine design is too complex, or if it’s a case of runaway processes (X number of tests required where one would do, three people needing to sign off — in triplicate — the tightening of each flange bolt, etc.).

    The latter is fixable with a culture change. The former is a much deeper issue.

  • GeorgeC

    It is all culture. Design culture; continuous optimization culture.
    Where you can optimize away the parts and metering you created without losing your job.

  • Ray Van Dune

    I recall reading that the design point for BE-4 was to be a “large engine running at modest performance”, in order to improve producibility and reliability. Looks like something went awry.

    Spacex probably designed Raptor to be a “modest-sized engine that performed like a bat out of hell!”

  • Edward

    Ray Van Dune wrote: “Spacex probably designed Raptor to be a “modest-sized engine that performed like a bat out of hell!”

    I think this illustrates a difference in philosophies. SpaceX is willing to mess with the design in order to improve performance and production, to the point that the second version of Raptor is flying and the third version will be ready for flight soon. So far, it seems Blue Origin has not made such improvements.

    SpaceX has abandoned the engineering philosophy of “if it works, don’t fix it” for a newer philosophy of “if it can work better, faster, cheaper, make it so!”, keeping Raptor (and Starship) in continuous development phase.* As GeorgeC called it: a “continuous optimization culture.

    Blue Origin may only now be learning that their engine works, but their production methods don’t work so well. Blue’s engineers may need to fix something, and I hope they know what it is.
    * Even Falcon 9 and its Merlin engine remained in development for half a decade after they became operational, then the engineers were moved onto Raptor and Starship, or BFR, as it was known back then.

  • pzatchok

    The problem with Blue Origin is they do not have enough flown engines to take apart and improve.

    Unlike Space X which recovered as much as possible intact and improved with every flight until they made their first total recovery. I bet those engines were stripped down to the last nut and bolt and everything that looked odd was changed to make it last longer or preform better.

    I bet every single scratch or wear mark was noted and corrected. More than likely a tech noted the problem and made the corrective recommendation to the engineer who approved or disapproved it signed off and sent down the new go ahead.
    Easy fixes get implemented on the next rocket, the more complex fixes eventually get done on later rockets.

    BO has flown nothing so has very very little data from recovered flights. And I just do not believe BO has the corporate structure like Space X has to accept recommendations from it techs. For a company with thousands of employees they act like they only have a dozen or so actually doing any assembly and construction.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “The problem with Blue Origin is they do not have enough flown engines to take apart and improve.

    SpaceX did not wait for a flown Raptor 1 before making improvements and coming up with the Raptor 2. They were able to realize improvements before having any flight experience or in-flight performance to review. Blue Origin could take a page from this handbook and modify the BE-4 for rapid manufacture.

  • pzatchok

    Maybe if congress offered them some more cash to improve the design they might come through with a better design.

    BO is not in this to make money by production but by design just like the old companies make more money on the design than the first productions.

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