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Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine experiences more delays

Capitalism in space: Though Blue Origin appears only a few weeks from delivering its first flightworthy BE-4 rocket engine to ULA for use in that company’s new not-yet-launched Vulcan rocket, the second flightworthy engine is further delayed due to technical problems discovered when static fire testing began.

Sources told Ars that the first engine was put onto the test stand in Texas early in August, but almost as soon as work began to hot-fire the powerful engine, an issue was discovered with the engine build. This necessitated a shipment back to Blue Origin’s factory in mid-August, as the company’s test stands in Texas do not allow for more than minor work.

As a result of this technical issue, ULA now appears likely to get one flight engine this month, but it probably will not receive the other one for installation onto the Vulcan rocket before mid-October, assuming a clean battery of tests in Texas.

This issue almost certainly means that Vulcan will not attempt its first launch this year. The rocket is thus more than three years behind schedule.

The problems outlined here however are far greater than simply the technical issues with this one engine. First, Blue Origin’s pace of operations continues to be far too leisurely. Nothing the company has done since 2017 has proceeded with any sense of urgency, and thus neither ULA nor Blue Origin have been able to launch their rockets.

Second, and far more important, Blue Origin is supposed to be manufacturing the BE-4 for two rockets, both Vulcan and its own New Glenn. Neither rocket will be reusable to begin with, which means the number of needed engines required at first will be high. For example, ULA has contracts to launch Vulcan twice almost immediately, with the need to follow these with several military launches. Each launch will require two BE-4 engines, so Blue Origin at a minimum needs to manufacture four engines, probably more, just to fulfill its obligations to ULA. To supply its own New Glenn rocket, it needs seven BE-4 engines for each launch, with the company having four launches on its manifest for 2023.

All told, Blue Origin thus has to deliver, at a minimum, 32 engines in 2023 alone, to meet its contractual obligations. And since the rockets and engines will be untested, expect at least one or two launch failures that will further increase the need for more engines.

Yet, there is no sign that Blue Origin has figured out how to manufacture these engines on an assembly line basis. Even if it gets these two engines delivered soon, it is unclear it can produce a lot of flightworthy engines fast enough to meet this launch schedule. Expect therefore that both rockets will continue to experience launch delays that could stretch out years.

Meanwhile, a plethora of new rocket companies have been appearing, all aiming eventually to compete with Blue Origin and ULA. If Blue Origin doesn’t get a move on, these new companies will soon be in a position to replace both it and ULA, entirely.

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Conscious Choice cover

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8 comments

  • Ray Van Dune

    I think it was Elon who said building prototypes is easy, but ramping up to production is hard! And I’m not even sure they’ve got the prototypes ready yet!

  • sippin_bourbon

    ULA should throw in the towel on the BE-4. While they have not gotten to orbit yet, Raptors have gotten things off the ground, and re-lit after.

    Musk should make them a deal on some of his left over Raptor 1s, since Vulcan is expendable anyway.

    (all said with deep sarcasm).

    Bezos teams work is so gradual, they are actually going backwards at times.

  • Jeff Wright

    Seeing that SLS is not going away-ULA should kill Vulcan and build Dynetics’ Pyrios with two simplified F-1s and J-2 upper stage. Low part count and being an SRB replacement is all that can save them. Pyrios gets Vulcan USAF payloads. Kick Bezos to the curb.

  • Richard M

    ULA really is “all in” on BE-4, though. To abandon it for another engine drop in – even a methalox engine like Raptor 2 – would require a major redesign of the Vulcan first stage. Impossible to see how that wouldn’t set them back a couple years. Going with an entirely NEW rocket would take . . . well, a lot longer.

    But to delay much longer would put a number of ULA’s NSSL launch contracts in jeopardy. I do not know what the provisions of the Kuiper launch contract are, but I have to think there’s a cutoff where there’s an option for Kuip[er to withdraw from launches.

    So, was choosing BE-4 over Aerojet’s AR-1 a mistake? I don’t think that was the problem so much as the decision not to build their own engine in-house, even at the cost of having to assemble a new engineering department from scratch. Once they chose to outsource it, they put themselves wholly at the mercy of an engine contractor: in this case, either a legacy defense contractor known to move at the speed of molasses in wintertime, or an utterly unproven startup. This is to be sure how ULA and its predecessor stakeholders had always done business. But back then, they had no competition. Now, they do. And it’s ruthlessly efficient competition, with more on the way.

    Tory Bruno has gone a long way to making ULA more competitive since 2014. But it is this fundamental weakness of his company that makes me think that, notwithstanding the big contracts for NSSL Phase II and Kuiper, that his company is unlikely to exist in the 2030’s.

  • Jay

    Richard,
    So we talked about the Kuiper issue last April and the deadline for Blue Origin has to get 1500 satellites up is July 30th, 2026.
    Right now all the Kuiper satellites are booked on rockets that have not launched yet: New Glenn, Vulcan, and Ariane-6.

  • Richard M

    Yeah, Kuiper definitely has some major risk sitting on its critical path.

    Maybe they could talk the FCC into an extension, but I think they would still need to have a major chunk of the constellation in place to make that argument stick.

  • Jay

    I am sure the FCC will grant them an extension for a fee if Blue Origin shows due diligence in launching the satellites and has at least a quarter of them up. If they sit around being lazy, I can see the FCC auctioning off their “orbital shells” to the market.

  • GaryMike

    I actually want Blue Origin to succeed.

    All the smart people are working for SpaceX.

    I would never be hired even by Blue Origin.

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