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The trials and tribulations of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine

Link here. The article tries to provide some explanations for the delays at Blue Origin that have put the BE-4 engine years behind schedule.

The first and most important fact gleaned from the article is that flightworthy versions of this engine will not be ready this summer as promised, and will likely not get delivered to ULA for its Vulcan rocket before the end of the year, causing its inaugural launch to be delayed to the second half of ’22. This also means that Blue Origin’s own orbital rocket, New Glenn, will likely not launch until late next year, at the earliest.

Moreover, the engines that Blue Origin will deliver to ULA will not be fully tested, and might require replacement if tests on other engines reveal more problems.

The article’s most important revelation about the delays however is this:

One of the most persistent problems, sources said, is that the BE-4 engine testing and development program has been relatively “hardware poor” in recent years. Effectively, this means that the factory in Washington has not had enough components to build development engines, and this has led to extended periods during which no testing has occurred on the stands in Texas.

It was surprising to hear this because back in the spring of 2017 Blue Origin stated publicly that its development program was hardware rich. After arriving as CEO in late 2017, however, [Bob] Smith appears to have focused more on a substantial reorganization of Blue Origin’s leadership rather than hardware development. Other programs were prioritized, too, so the BE-4 team did not get all the resources and freedom it needed to proceed at full throttle. [emphasis mine]

To put it more bluntly, Smith decided it was more important to rearrange the deck chairs rather than launch lifeboats into the water. As a result, Blue Origin has essentially wasted the last four-plus years.

There are signs that the company has changed course away from Smith’s focus, but we shall have to wait and see. The childish press release issued by Blue Origin yesterday, claiming its manned lunar lander was far better than SpaceX’s Starship and should have been chosen by NASA, suggests that the course change has not been as thorough as one would hope. The amount of intellectual dishonesty contained in that release is somewhat disturbing, especially coming from a rocket company:

Blue Origin appears to be, at minimum, cherry picking its comparisons. The graphic notes that the Starship-Super Heavy system hasn’t launched yet. Starship has launched six miles into the air on several occasions, but not with its Super Heavy booster. It also points out that SpaceX’s Starship facilities in Boca Chica, Texas have never accommodated an orbital launch. Blue Origin, though has never launched any rocket to orbit from anywhere.

The graphic doesn’t, however, note the cost of the Starship lunar lander. SpaceX’s proposal estimates that it will cost NASA $2.9 billion, while Blue Origin’s gave a price of $5.9 billion. [emphasis mine]

For the management of a rocket company to not recognize the fundamental facts indicated by the highlighted words above, or to make believe they are unimportant, does not bode well for that rocket company. Rather than focusing on getting its rocket finally off the ground, the management appears instead unwilling to face some hard facts, and fix them.

Meanwhile, SpaceX keeps barrelling along, focused not on petty managment issues or whiny complaints, but on actually building rockets that fly.

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Conscious Choice cover

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8 comments

  • Jeff Wright

    Bezos! Work with Dynetics. Bring F-I back to life!

  • Ray Van Dune

    I have immense respect for Musk’s intelligence and design sense, but I do worry that he might be too easily provoked into unwise decisions by a loudmouth like Bezos. This may well be Bezos’s plan – to goad SpaceX into taking risks and hoping for a spectacular failure. The strategy of hard work seems not to have made the short-list at BO.

  • Col Beausabre

    Maybe Bezos really IS Lex Luthor !

  • James Street

    Q: How do you improve operations at your company?
    A: Move it out from under management.

  • pzatchok

    Why spend 10 million improving your own company when its easier and cheaper to shoot down your best competitor.

    They are only in it for the government development cash.

    They will never get up to the development style and speed of Space X.

  • Jay

    I followed the link, read the article, and I read the comments. There were some good technical comments, but one stood out to me: FOIA. If we want to find out what is really going on with the BE-4, file a FOIA (Freedom Of Information Act to our foreign visitors). This falls under it since the BE-4 is being paid for by the taxpayers. Of course this might be denied since Blue Origin is a sub-contractor to ULA and Vulcan is being used by the DoD.

  • George C

    The gross operating measures of the BE-4 and Raptor are so different that you wonder if SpaceX previous experience with hydrocarbon based fuels with Merlin provided them with some kind of trade secret wisdom of what measures in the design to avoid and what to embrace such as high chamber pressure. When an article compares your product with the F1 then good luck to you.

  • Edward

    Blue Origin is badmouthing the Earth orbit rendezvous (EOR) system that NASA thought it would have to use with Apollo. Until they finally accepted lunar orbit rendezvous, NASA was seriously considering EOR for fueling operations. The only other alternative that they could have done was build an unwieldy, huge rocket with a lunar lander the size of the Atlas rocket, the one that flew Mercury capsules.

    If Blue Origin really thinks that orbital refueling is too difficult, then it thinks that we are limited in our ability to use space.

    What also isn’t compared by Blue Origin is reusability, because it loses on that score, too, and without orbital refueling then there is no reusability at all in Blue Origin’s plan.

    Bezos has expressed interest in going back to the Moon, but what his company should do is what SpaceX is doing to go to Mars: just do it. SpaceX is bypassing NASA, and Blue Origin should do the same. Blue Origin is still considering NASA as the only customer, the monopsony. This is a limiting paradigm. We have already seen an increase in customers for Falcon 9 and Electron, and Crew Dragon’s success has even brought additional tourism customers for itself and Soyuz. The reduction in launch costs has opened up the market for low Earth orbit constellations and allows them to do better than Iridium and Globalstar. Blue Origin should likewise find customers for any Earth to Moon system that they create.

    Robert wrote: “Meanwhile, SpaceX keeps barrelling along, focused not on petty managment issues or whiny complaints, but on actually building rockets that fly.

    This is the point. Blue Origin is not keeping its eye on the ball but is being distracted by thinking constantly about the call on the last pitch. Blue Origin cannot win them all. Even SpaceX can’t, but they don’t mind so much when they don’t win. When Blue Origin landed its booster just days before SpaceX did, SpaceX continued on and now has recovered boosters almost a hundred more times than Blue Origin has. When Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin both announced then beat SpaceX to commercial space tourism, SpaceX continued on unfazed.

    Blue Origin flew its capsule to space four years before SpaceX did, but SpaceX was able to fly theirs manned a year before Blue Origin did. What took Blue Origin so long? Distractions.

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