Based on a detailed update today at NASASpaceFlight.com on the status of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, it appears that while everything is proceeding as scheduled for a 2021 launch debut, the big issue that might cause a delay is Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage.
Speaking to the Denver Business Journal yesterday, ULA CEO Tory Bruno noted an ongoing issue with BE-4’s turbopumps but voiced his confidence that the issue would soon be resolved and that it would not impact Vulcan’s schedule at this time.
…Development of the BE-4 has long been seen as the critical path for Vulcan. ULA exercised an option within the U.S. Space Force’s National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 award proposal and bid Atlas V as a backup vehicle for Vulcan in case the latter ran into development or certification issues.
When asked when ULA would have to inform the Space Force of its desire to switch one of the first awarded NSSL missions from Vulcan to Atlas V under a purely hypothetical BE-4 or Vulcan issue, Mr. Peller [VP of Major Development for ULA] did not comment directly, instead affirming ULA’s confidence that all of their NSSL missions would fly on Vulcan. [emphasis mine]
From the Denver Business Journal article:
Blue Origin is still troubleshooting the 75,000-horsepower pumps that bring fuel to the BE-4’s main combustion chamber, Bruno said, adding that he’s confident the issues will soon be solved. “There’s very little technical risk,” he said. “It isn’t easy, but we know we can do it.” [emphasis mine]
This is the first public admission I’ve seen anywhere of a specific problem with the BE-4 engine. It also suggests strongly that the problem has been long-standing, and has not yet been solved.
Both articles also make it clear that ULA is prepared to continue using both the Atlas 5 rocket and the Russian engines (that the BE-4 is supposed to replace) until 2027, if necessary.
While it could very well be that the BE-4’s turbopump issues are on the way to being solved and there will be no delays, the careful wording by Bruno and his head of development strongly suggests that they are aware of an issue and are trying to deflect press interest in it. In fact, the timing of this revelation, only six weeks after Blue Origin delivered to ULA its first BE-4 engine (a test version not flightworthy), suggests that ULA has only now become aware of the issue, and is now working to help solve it.
Stay tuned. I suspect all will become very clear within the next few months.
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