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Problems with Blue Origin’s engine force more delays of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket

In a detailed and very informative review of the partnership between ULA and Blue Origin yesterday, Eric Berger at Ars Technica noted these unfolding facts:

For years, United Launch Alliance chief executive Tory Bruno had been saying the new Vulcan rocket, powered by two [Blue Origin] BE-4 engines, would launch in 2021. However, he recently told Aviation Week the first launch would slip into 2022. Bruno said this was due primarily to the mission’s customer, Astrobotic, whose Moon lander was not ready. Technically, Bruno said, Vulcan still had a chance to be ready for a 2021 launch.

This seems highly unlikely because it is already July, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) still does not have a pair of flight engines. After receiving the flight engines from Blue Origin, ULA needs to attach them to the Vulcan rocket, roll it to the launch pad, and conduct a lengthy series of tests before a hot-fire ignition. After this hot-fire test, the rocket will be rolled back to the hangar and prepared for an actual launch attempt. As of January, Bruno was saying this hot fire test with the flight engines would take place this summer. That will no longer happen.

In December both companies promised delivery of those flight engines by this summer, but so far nothing has arrived. Moreover, both companies have remained very tight-lipped about the cause of the most recent delays. In October 2020 Bruno said that an issue with the engine’s turbopumps had been identified and fixed, but if so why has the engine not arrived as promised?

A GAO report released last month had described issues with the engine’s “igniter and booster capabilities,” but Bruno himself has denied the igniter was a problem.

Regardless, Blue Origin’s inability to deliver this engine is causing problems at both companies. Both have been forced to delay the launch of their new orbital rockets. Both rockets were initially scheduled to launch in 2020, were delayed to 2021 about two years ago, and now are likely not to launch until 2022.

While ULA can still switch to its Atlas 5 rocket for some planned Vulcan launches (and has already done so), that rocket is more expensive and thus eats into the company’s profit margin. Using the more expensive Atlas 5 in bidding also makes it more difficult for ULA to compete with SpaceX in any head-to-head competition.

Blue Origin does not even have this option. Its proposed New Glenn rocket is grounded until it gets its engine operational.

All told, the failure of Blue Origin to deliver here is essentially grounding all of SpaceX’s potential American competition, a situation that is not healthy for the American rocket industry.

Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!

 

From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

 
Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.

 

“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.

 

All editions available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors. The ebook can be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner. Note that the price for the ebook, $3.99, goes up to $5.99 on September 1, 2022.

 

Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.

5 comments

  • pzatchok

    BO has gone the way of the old government contractors.

    Bet the funding and then deliver years late and over budget.

  • Jeff Wright

    They need to kill Vulcan but fund Dynetics’ Pyrios as a fly-back with J-2 upper stage.

  • George C

    ULA should hire MacKenzie Scott to advise on managing that engine contract with BO.

  • Jay

    Jeff,
    A J-2 upper stage would be great!

    I never found an explanation why the J-2X was not used for Ares-V/SLS second stage. They seem to have gone back and forth on whether to pick the J-2X or the RL-10 for years. They did finally settle on the RL-10. I figured since the the RL-10 was already in production and used with the Delta-IV Heavy that it was cheaper, but it has to be man-rated.

  • Chris Lopes

    Yeah but hey, their CEO will be in space (for a few minutes) soon!

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