Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine


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Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

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9 comments

  • Diane Wilson

    That looks pretty complicated, although I’d assume that some of that is instrumentation that won’t be part of production engines.

    Still, it looks like a lot more spaghetti wiring and tubing than the early Raptors, and Raptors have been shedding that complexity as production continues. The last Raptor we’ve seen was SN20, which was to be the engine for the first Starship hop with SS SN4. SN5 should be getting its Raptor in a day or two; it will be interesting to see how it’s progressing. Elon’s last update on Raptor production was SN30, a month ago. And these Raptors are flight-test articles.

  • V-Man

    BO needs to stop being so careful and accept they’re going to have the occasional mishaps along the way.

    I mean, look at that mobile trailer. Strong, straight, probably cradles the engine perfectly at just the right places. Took months to design and tons of money to build.

    Meanwhile, SpaceX shuffles Raptors around on wooden pallets using a rented forklift.

  • Chris Lopes

    BO has the “advantage” of a very wealthy and undemanding benefactor. They are under no real stress to do anything, so they pretty much don’t. If the contract with ULA falls through, Bezos will just cut them another billion dollar check. Just like NASA with SLA, failure is not only an option, it’s standard operating procedure.

  • kyle foley

    I wonder if BO realized that the Air Force wants redundancy and if Blue and ULA have the same engine the AF will pick ULA every time.

  • pzatchok

    BO by law does not have to produce anything on time.
    By law the US must buy from US contractors when available.

  • pzatchok

    V-Man

    100 years ago when Ford started his production line for the model T he was ordering engines and other parts.
    Well he came up with a pretty good idea about that.
    He ordered all the crates to be the same thickness .
    He then had them broke apart and re-used as floor boards for the car.
    True classic original Model T’s still have the shipping labels on the floor.

  • pzatchok

    The scrap wood from all that he couldn’t use went to a relative. Mr. Kingsford who turned it into charcoal.

  • Edward

    Diane Wilson wrote: “That looks pretty complicated, although I’d assume that some of that is instrumentation that won’t be part of production engines.

    Probably. Other photographs of the BE-4 do not show as much plumbing or wiring, and, generally, anything that is red on a flight unit is a remove-before-flight item.

    V-Man wrote: “Meanwhile, SpaceX shuffles Raptors around on wooden pallets using a rented forklift.

    It certainly demonstrates a philosophical difference between the companies. SpaceX takes Keep It Simple Stupid to heart. However, the Raptor engine may be lighter than the BE-4 (I haven’t looked it up), so it may tolerate carrying its own weight better than the BE-4 does.

  • wodun

    BO appears to have a different motivation than SpaceX. SpaceX is a company designed to pay for Elon Musk’s dreams while BO is a company designed to get government contracts. That doesn’t mean they wont be competitive in the private market but they are certainly trying to capture government.

    Being a government contractor is quite lucrative. Displacing the existing ones are hard but the reward is that BO also becomes hard to replace. Then there are the benefits that Bezos’ other companies will get from tying so many strings to the government. It is a smart but also corrupt strategy.

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