ULA’s Vulcan rocket: problems with Blue Origin’s rocket engine


Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

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.

Readers!
 

My July fund-raiser for Behind the Black is now over. The support from my readers was unprecedented, making this July campaign the best ever, twice over. What a marvelous way to celebrate the website's tenth anniversary!
 

Thank you! The number of donations in July, and continuing now at the beginning of August, is too many for me to thank you all personally. Please forgive me by accepting my thank you here, in public, on the website.
 

If you did not donate or subscribe in July and still wish to, note that the tip jar remains available year round.


 

Regular readers can support Behind The Black with a contribution via paypal:

Or with a subscription with regular donations from your Paypal or credit card account:


 

If Paypal doesn't work for you, you can support Behind The Black directly by sending your donation by check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 
Behind The Black
c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652

12 comments

  • LocalFluff

    I had forgotten that Atlas 5 uses Russian made first stage engines! I wonder at what price they are sold. And what the Space Force thinks about that. Europe, Russia, China all design and build their launchers domestically. Perhaps they should try the Raptor?

  • Chris Lopes

    Once again we see what happens when failure has no consequences. Whether their engines work or not, whether anything they build will ever fly or not, Bezos will continue to pump money into the company. They act like they have all the time in the world because they do.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Some years ago it was revealed that ULA pays about $24 million apiece for the RD-180 engines. Each Atlas V 1st stage is powered by one such engine. The RD-180 has twin combustion chambers and nozzles fed by a common set of turbomachinery.

  • Jeff Wright

    This hurts Vulcan too.
    The downselect should have been SpaceX and OmegA

  • Richard M

    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.

    Well, for Dream Chaser flights, at any rate.

    Though all the statute says is that no Russian engines can be *purchased* for use in national security launches after December 31, 2021. It would be in conformity with the *letter* of the law for ULA to buy up a big heap of RD-180’s from Energomash NOW, to stretch out use fo the Atlas, though many in Congress might feel that would violate the *spirit* of the law.

    But the best thing to happen would be for Blue Origin to figure out the turbopump problem quickly, and get operational engines shipped to ULA before deadlines start getting pushed back. The sooner ULA is no longer reliant on Russian engines – and the sooner New Glenn (which also uses BE-4’s) gets into operation, the better.

  • Richard M

    Some years ago it was revealed that ULA pays about $24 million apiece for the RD-180 engines.

    Insane. They’re fleecing ULA. And ULA has had no choice but to get fleeced.

  • mkent

    Though all the statute says is that no Russian engines can be *purchased* for use in national security launches after December 31, 2021.

    Minor nit: The law forbids *the Pentagon* from purchasing flights on vehicles powered by Russian engines after, I think, 31 December 2022 (not 2021). It restricts the Pentagon, a government agency, and not ULA, a private company. It’s a Republican-authored restriction, not a Democrat-authored one.

    It would be in conformity with the *letter* of the law for ULA to buy up a big heap of RD-180’s from Energomash NOW, to stretch out use fo the Atlas, though many in Congress might feel that would violate the *spirit* of the law.

    The *number* of Russian engines available for Pentagon flights is also restricted, regardless of when the flights are ordered. I believe there are enough engines available under the law for twelve Atlas flights under the recently awarded NSSL contract. After that, if ULA does not have Vulcan up and running, ULA’s flights will be re-assigned to SpaceX, and those flights will not count against SpaceX’s 40% share.

    Twelve engines provide about a three-year buffer for ULA. If they don’t have Vulcan worked out by then, they’re in trouble regardless of the law.

  • Ray Van Dune

    “Blue Origin is still troubleshooting the 75,000-horsepower pumps that bring fuel to the BE-4’s main combustion chamber, Bruno said…”

    The reference to “75,000 horsepower” is irritating, and a bit worrying, because nobody that I am aware of in the space business talks about horsepower. It has the vibe of someone trying to dazzle the uninformed with meaningless numbers as a way of making excuses for failure to meet targets.

  • Richard M

    mkent,

    My nit is properly picked. This is what I get for not re-checking the legislative language and relying too casually on media reports. Sec. 1608 does indeed say:

    (a) In General.–Except as provided by subsections (b) and (c), beginning on the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Defense may not award or renew a contract for the procurement of property or services for space launch activities under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program if such contract carries out such space launch activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation.

    Tory Bruno did indeed recently tweet that ULA has 12 remaining RD-180’s still on hand.

    The BE-4 turbopump is an engineering problem and therefore it has an engineering solution, which I am reasonably sure BO can deliver at some point. But rumors are trickling out of growing frustration over at ULA at this latest delay from Blue Origin. Blue Origin may not have any launc contracts in jeopardy, but ULA certainly does.

  • mpthompson

    Is this perhaps ULA saying: “The cat is on the roof and can’t get down.”

    http://jokes.ochristian.com/Death/Cat_on_the_Roof.shtml

  • Edward

    Richard M wrote: “They’re fleecing ULA. And ULA has had no choice but to get fleeced.

    As with the price that NASA paid for Soyuz seats to ISS, the RD-180 engines sold for Atlas V started at a low price but increased over time. In both cases, the U.S. was over a barrel, and the Russians took advantage of the position. The rising price of these engines was noted even before Congress scheduled a ban on their use, and it was a reason the price of an Atlas V launch kept rising. Vulcan, with its U.S. built engines, was the solution.

    The lesson is that we should not depend solely on Russian goods for our mission critical items. They seem reasonable at first, but then the fleecing begins as they seek the level at which all the traffic will bear.

    Robert wrote: “It also suggests strongly that the problem has been long-standing, and has not yet been solved.”

    I came across an old page from the 1980s entitled: How to Interpret Development Status. I think some of the interpretations may be appropriate:

    What Developers say — What it means
    ============== ==================
    Essentially complete — It’s half done

    We predict — We hope tp God

    Serious, but no insurmountable problems — It’ll take a miracle

    Basic agreement reached — The &%$#@’s won’t even talk to us

    Not well defined — Nobody’s thought about it

    Results are encouraging — Power-on produced no smoke

  • Ray Van Dune

    Ps. In my mind, “troubleshooting” does not mean “fixing” or “redesigning”. It means “trying to figure out what the %^#* is wrong”!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *