ULA to no longer sell Atlas-5 launches

Capitalism in space: In an interview ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno has announced that they have contracts on all of the company’s remaining Atlas-5 rockets, and will no longer be offering that rocket for new sales.

“We’re done. They’re all sold,” CEO Tory Bruno said of ULA’s Atlas V rockets in an interview. ULA, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, has 29 Atlas V missions left before it retires sometime in the mid-2020s and transitions to its upcoming Vulcan rocket, Bruno said. The remaining Atlas V missions include a mix of undisclosed commercial customers and some for the Space Force, NASA, and Amazon’s budding broadband satellite constellation, Project Kuiper.

This means that the company is now firmly committed to its Vulcan rocket, which also means it is entirely committed to the repeatedly delayed BE-4 engine that Blue Origin is building for that rocket. This announcement suggests that Bruno is confident that the BE-4’s problems have been overcome, and that Blue Origin is about to begin regular assembly of the many flightworthy engines ULA will need.

If so, this is really good news. It not only means that Vulcan launches will finally begin, but that Blue Origin might also begin flying its New Glenn rocket. Both will give the U.S. some competitive options for getting big payloads into space. Right now the only real choice at a reasonable price is SpaceX, and having one choice is never a good thing.

ULA rolls Vulcan core first stage to launchpad for tank tests

Capitalism in space: ULA yesterday rolled out a test Vulcan core first stage to its launchpad for a variety of tests in preparation for its first launch, now delayed until next year.

The rocket’s core stage will undergo Pathfinder Tanking Tests (PTT) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It is outfitted with two development BE-4 engines that will be replaced by flight engines before launch. The tanking, or fueling, tests will validate launch pad infrastructure, evaluate countdown procedures, and train the launch team.

That these launchpad tests were delayed until now suggests that ULA had hoped to do them with the flightworthy engines, and then follow-up quickly with Vulcan’s first orbital launch in the fall. With the admission this week by both Blue Origin and ULA that the flightworthy BE-4 engines would not be delivered this summer as promised, ULA probably decided it was better to get this testing done now with the development engines, in order to save prep time for when the flightworthy engines finally arrive.

Thus, the delays at Blue Origin are costing ULA money. Once the flightworthy engines are installed, ULA will still need to do static fire launchpad tests, which means they will have to do much of this test program all over again. The extra countdown rehearsals are of course beneficial, but they are an extra expense, and also require extra time.

ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, has tried very hard to streamline ULA’s operations so they are more efficient and thus more competitive. Blue Origin’s failure to deliver on time is making Bruno’s effort very difficult.

It also shows that SpaceX’s policy of building as many of its components in-house, instead of depending on outside contractors, makes sense. And that all of the new rocket companies are doing the same proves that others agree. ULA’s dependence on others for its rocket engines will thus in the long run put it at big competitive disadvantage.

Blue Origin BE-4 engine delayed again

In an interview ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno revealed that Blue Origin is not going to deliver the first two flightworthy BE-4 engines this summer, as promised, with delivery now probably not until the end of the year.

“I will not get them before the end of the year,” said Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA, in an exclusive Denver Business Journal interview ahead of this week’s Space Symposium industry gathering in Colorado Springs. “It will be shortly into the beginning of the 2022 calendar year, and anywhere in there will support me being able to build up a rocket and have that Vulcan waiting on my customer, Astrobotic.”

…“We’ve actually be been able to accommodate this, but I’ll be straight with you, the dates we’ve set up for them now— we really don’t have the ability to make any big moves after this,” Bruno said. “I need them to diligently work through the plans we have and get done on time.”

ULA needs to launch its new Vulcan rocket twice in order to get approved for its first military launch, now expected in less than 12 months. They thus no longer have any schedule margin.

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.

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.

GAO: Problems with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine threaten ULA’s Vulcan rocket

Capitalism in space: According to a new report [pdf] issued by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on June 8th, on-going technical issues with Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine threaten ULA’s planned inaugural launch of its new Vulcan rocket later this year.

From page 106 of the report:

A U.S. produced rocket engine [BE-4] under development [by Blue Origin] for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021. A joint program office and ULA team is tracking these challenges, and NSSL officials told us Vulcan remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021. However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas V—which uses engines manufactured in the Russian Federation—to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development. [emphasis mine]

ULA has a limited number of Russian engines in its inventory. At some point it must move on to American-built engines, and if Blue Origin’s BE-4 cannot be fixed then the company will be forced to look for other options.

Both ULA and Blue Origin maintain that the first Vulcan launch will occur in the fourth quarter of this year, launching Astrobotic’s lunar lander Peregrine to the Moon, but no date has been announced. If this GAO report is describing problems that still remain as of June 2021 and have not been fixed, then expect a further delay to be announced, probably by September.

These technical issues with the BE-4 engine also impact Blue Origin’s plans to begin launching its orbital rocket, New Glenn, next year. That rocket is already two years behind schedule, delays caused partly by these engine issues and partly due to the requirements imposed by the military under the above-mentioned $2.9 billion program to develop new launch systems. Without that new engine, Blue Origin’s much-touted effort to compete with SpaceX for commercial launches will go up in smoke.

Delays force ULA to replace Vulcan rocket with Atlas 5 on military launch

Because the development of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket is behind schedule, the Space Force has agreed to allow the company to replace it with an Atlas 5 rocket on a ’22 launch.

That mission, known as USSF-51, was awarded to ULA in August 2020 and is scheduled to launch in late 2022. The company had bid its newly developed Vulcan to fly that mission but the vehicle is not going to be ready on time. As a result, the Space Force agreed to allow ULA to launch USSF-51 on the company’s legacy vehicle the Atlas 5.

…Switching vehicles financially penalizes ULA. According to the company, the Atlas 5 is more expensive than Vulcan. Phase 2 provisions allow ULA to change vehicles but at no cost penalty to the government.

This story however is important because of what it tells us about the state of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, required by both Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket.

At this moment ULA is saying that the first launch of Vulcan is still scheduled for late this year, launching Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the Moon. However, for that launch to happen the rocket requires working BE-4 rocket engines for its first stage. In January Blue Origin announced it had finally completed a full throttle test of that engine after problems lasting several years, and would soon be delivering flight-worthy engines to ULA.

It is now late May, and the article at the link revealed this very significant and somewhat shocking detail buried in the text:

Blue Origin in 2020 delivered pathfinder engines for ground tests but has yet to provide a flight-qualified engine for Vulcan’s first flight. A spokeswoman for Blue Origin said May 20 the company is “on track to deliver BE-4 engines this year.” [emphasis mine]

It seems completely impossible for ULA to launch that lunar lander on Vulcan this year if it does not yet have any flight-worthy engines on hand to incorporate and test in the rocket. Worse, it appears that Blue Origin might not deliver those engines for months yet.

This story thus suggests that we will not see launches of either ULA’s new Vulcan rocket or Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket for a considerable time.

Russia hands over last rocket engines to ULA

In a ceremony in Russia yesterday, Roscosmos’s Energomash division completed and handed over ownership to ULA six RD-180 engines, to be used in ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket.

These are the last such engines required as part of the contract. They will also likely be the last Russian engines ULA will ever buy. The company is retiring its Atlas 5 rocket, which requires them, and replacing it with its Vulcan rocket, which will instead use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

Furthermore, as of September 1st, 2021 such commercial space contracts with Russia will be difficult to obtain because of new sanctions imposed on Russia by the Biden administration.

Blue Origin reveals full throttle long duration test of its BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos today revealed that Blue Origin has successfully completed a full throttle long duration test of its BE-4 engine to be used by both its New Glenn Rocket and ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

“Perfect night,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who created the Blue Origin space venture more than two decades ago, wrote in an Instagram post. “Sitting in the back of my pickup truck under the moon and stars, watching another long-duration, full-thrust hot-fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.”

The post featured a shot of Bezos and other spectators looking on at the rising rocket plume from afar, as well as a video with closer perspectives of the firing.

The company has delivered two engines to ULA designed for ground testing, and says it will deliver soon the flight ready engines for Vulcan’s first launch later this year. Blue Origin also needs to get flight ready engines finished this year for New Glenn, which is also supposed to make it inaugural flight in ’21.

Personally, I think both Blue Origin and ULA are cutting it close. I will not be surprised if this tight schedule means that the first launches of both rockets get delayed into ’22.

Nonetheless, it is great news that the BE-4 appears to finally working as planned after what appeared to be problems for the past few years.

First flightworthy BE-4 engine delivery now expected in summer ’21

Capitalism in space: Tory Bruno, the CEO of ULA, revealed yesterday that Blue Origin will finally deliver two flightworthy BE-4 engines for ULA’s Vulcan rocket this coming summer.

ULA, the Pentagon’s top launch contractor for national security satellites, had initially expected the shipment in 2020 for a debut flight in early 2021, but this was delayed by development hurdles.

The installation of Blue Origin’s reusable BE-4 engines into ULA’s next-generation Vulcan rocket will keep it on track for the debut launch of a moon lander dubbed Peregrine at the end of 2021, ULA Chief Executive Tory Bruno said. The Vulcan rocket has won a slate of key U.S. defense missions through 2027.

“That is now our expectation, that Peregrine will go to space in the 4th quarter of 2021,” Bruno told reporters during a call on Thursday.

Peregrine is a commercial lunar lander being built by Astrobotic for NASA.

More information here.

It appears that ULA thinks the long delay in engine development and delivery from Blue Origin will not delay the planned first launch of Vulcan later in ’21. It appears their long range plan to recover and reuse these engines has caused them to design Vulcan so that they can easily swap out engines, which will allow them to complete that new rocket’s development with the test engines that Blue Origin has already provided, and then switch engines and launch within months.

During Bruno’s press briefing he also noted that they have done a thorough refurbish of the Delta launchpads and have instituted a new policy requiring regular launchpad dress rehearsals, in order to make sure the series of problems that delayed the launch of a Delta-4 Heavy earlier this year will not reoccur.

Blue Origin pinpoints problem with BE-4 engine

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno, Blue Origin has identified and fixed the issue with the turbopumps of its new BE-4 rocket engine.

United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Tory Bruno said Friday that the problem was “sorted out,” and that the full-scale, flight-configured BE-4 engine is now accumulating a lot of time on the test stand. Bruno made his comments about one hour into The Space Show with David Livingston.

Bruno’s company, ULA, is buying the BE-4 engine to provide thrust for the first stage of its upcoming Vulcan-Centaur rocket. This booster may make its debut next year, although ULA is still awaiting delivery of BE-4s for the first flight. Two of these large engines—each providing about 25-percent more thrust than the RS-25s used on the Space Shuttle—will power each Vulcan rocket.

Here’s what I think happened: Blue Origin struggled to fix the problem for several years. ULA, suspecting problems, got increasingly impatient at the lack of delivery of an operational engine, and threatened to dump the BE-4 in favor of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine unless it was given a test engine to analyze. Blue Origin finally complied in July, and very quickly ULA pinpointed the problem and the solution.

While this is good news for the development of both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, it does not speak well for the development team at Blue Origin. Nonetheless, the engine is always the big hurdle for designing a rocket, and that hurdle has now been passed.

During Bruno’s interview he also said that ULA still intends to recover and reuse these engines when it flies its Vulcan rocket, but gave no timeline for when that might happen. Initially, and probably for several years at least, expect those engines to be expendable and tossed into the ocean with each flight.

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

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.

Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

Bezos provides 1st BE-4 engine update in more than a year

Yesterday Jeff Bezos posted the first status update since last spring on the development of the BE-4 rocket engine by Blue Origin, posting one image and stating that the engine testing continues.

According to his post, the engine had just completed a full power test, and has been accumulating test time.

This update is very reassuring, especially following such a long period of silence, beginning in April 2018. Before that Blue Origin had provided somewhat regularly updates.

In reviewing my past posts, it appears that the updates more or less ceased once ULA announced its decision to use the BE-4 in its Vulcan rocket. I now suspect the earlier updates were aimed more at ULA than the public, and once the decision was made Blue Origin returned to its more traditional tight-lipped approach.

Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket

Link here. Overall the rocket seems to be on track for its planned April 2021 launch, except it appears ULA has decided to do that launch without two new components of the rocket that previously were planned, delaying their implementation.

First, it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights. It seems that both companies want that engine to first fly on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, whose first launch is not set until 2021 as well.

This delay in the engine’s use has me wondering whether ULA has gotten cold feet about Blue Origin and its engine. It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

In fact, the combination of increased hype and lack of progress has made Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos remind me increasingly of Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, that team of endless unmet promises.

Second, it appears ULA has given the recovery and reuse of Vulcan’s first stage engines a very low priority. The technique they had chosen was to have the engines separate from the tanks and return to Earth by parafoil, protected by an inflatable heat shield. However,

A technology demonstration payload for the inflatable heat shield, which could also be used to deliver payloads to the surface of Mars, is slated to fly as a rideshare payload with NOAA’s JPSS-2 satellite aboard an Atlas V launch no earlier than 2022. [emphasis mine]

In other words, that reusable technology probably won’t be operational until well into the 2020s. Vulcan will likely be completely expendable for at least the first five years of its use.

ULA apparently has decided to take the safe technology route. Financially secure because of a $1 billion Air Force development contract to pay for Vulcan, combined with the military’s obvious desire to favor them in the awarding of future launch contracts, the company doesn’t have any incentive to innovate in any way to lower costs.

Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

Blue Origin changes engines for New Glenn second stage

Capitalism in space: In order to maintain its goal of launch its orbital New Glenn rocket by 2020, Blue Origin has changed the engine it will use in the rocket’s second stage from a version of its main BE-4 engine to new version of their already developed BE-3 engine, used in their reusable New Shepard suborbital spacecraft.

A Blue Origin executive told SpaceNews the company is shelving development of a vacuum-optimized version of BE-4 and will instead use vacuum-optimized versions of flight-proven BE-3 engines for New Glenn’s second stage and optional third stage. “We’ve already flown BE-3s, and we were already in the development program for BE-3U as the third stage for New Glenn,” said Clay Mowry, Blue Origin’s vice president of sales, marketing and customer experience. “It made a lot of sense for us to switch to an architecture where we get there faster for first flight.”

The BE-3U is the upper stage variant of the liquid hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine that has powered Blue Origin’s reusable New Shepard spacecraft on seven suborbital test flights since its 2015 debut. Mowry said switching to the BE-3U for New Glenn’s second stage will allow Blue Origin to conduct the rocket’s first launch in the fourth quarter of 2020. He declined to say how much time the engine change saves compared to the original configuration.

This quiet change, which the company made with no fanfare, carries with it some significant information as well as important ramifications. First, the BE-3 engine is less powerful than the planned BE-4, which is why they will use two BE-3 engines in the second stage instead of one BE-4, while also extending the length of the stage to accommodate more fuel. Though they claim the change will increase the rocket’s range, I suspect however that even with these changes New Glenn’s overall orbital payload capacity will be reduced.

Second, the change indicates that development of the BE-4 engine is proceeding slower than expected, threatening their 2020 launch goal. They have had one test failure that set them back, and the change suggests to me that they are having issues with making the engine restartable.

Third, if they have problems making the BE-4 engines restartable, this means their plans to reuse the first stage of New Glenn will be impacted. While those first stage engines do not need to restart on any single flight, reusing them requires this capability.

Fourth, problems with the BE-4 might cause ULA to reject it and choose Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine for its new Vulcan rocket. Up to now ULA has indicated it prefers the BE-4. These issues might change that.

Fifth, this change, combined with the continuing lack of New Shepard test flights, suggests that the company is increasingly considering abandoning this suborbital spacecraft.

I am doing a lot of speculating here, and could be very wrong on many if not all of these suppositions. We shall have to wait and see.

Bezos releases video of BE-4 static fire test

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos today released a video of a 114 second engine test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

I have embedded the video below the fold. The test was at 65% power, but it strongly suggests that the company is getting close to certifying this engine for use, which will then allow ULA to make its final decision on whether to use it in its Vulcan rocket. It also will allow Blue Origin to begin construction of its own New Glenn rocket, which is set to begin flights in 2020.
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Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine still leads race with Aerojet Rocketdyne

Capitalism in space: An independent assessment of the development work being done by Blue Origin and Aeroject Rocketdyne on their competing rocket engines says that Blue Origin is still in the lead by two years, despite a testing incident in May.

The article also outlines how the present Air Force budget includes language that would prevent the Air Force from financing any part of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, other than the money presently being spent to subsidize Aeroject Rocketdyne’s AR-4 engine.

Blue Origin to build its rocket engines in Alabama

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced today that it will build its BE-4 rocket engine factory in Alabama.

There is one caveat. They will only commit to the factory once they have won their contract to build the BE-4 engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. And that contract is not yet awarded.

Obviously, this decision has political components. By picking Alabama, Blue Origin hopes to blunt the political favoritism in Alabama to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s rocket engine, thus improving their chances of winning the ULA contract.

Engine test of Blue Origin BE-4 engine goes bad

Capitalism n space: Blue Origin today revealed that an engine test of its BE-4 rocket engine, intended for sale to ULA as well as the basis for their own New Glenn rocket, went wrong.

In a rare update, the Blue Origin space venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos reported that it lost a set of powerpack test hardware for its BE-4 rocket engine over the weekend, but added that such a setback is “not unusual” during development. “That’s why we always set up our development programs to be hardware-rich,” the company tweeted today. “Back into testing soon.”

The announcement was via a tweet, and they have released no additional details.

ULA prepares to choose engine for Vulcan

Capitalism in space: ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno announced at a space conference this week that should Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine pass its testing phase his company will be prepared to select it for their Vulcan rocket.

Bruno also said that no decision has yet been made, and that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine remains an option, though it is 18 to 24 months behind in development.

Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine moves forward

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has completed more than 100 development tests of its new BE-4 rocket engine, being developed for ULA.

Much of this announcement sounds like public relations blather. However, it contained this nugget of information that is crucial to understanding why this engine is likely to get built quickly:

The BE-4 engine is also the leading candidate to be used in the first stage of ULA’s Vulcan vehicle. Speaking to reporters after the Sept. 15 Florida event, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said that while he was aware of competing engines for the Vulcan, like the AR-1 under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne, he was focused on completing the BE-4. “We’re going to build the best 21st century engine that we can for ULA,” he said. “Ultimately they will make the decision about what they want to do.”

Bezos also noted that, unlike the AR-1 or other concepts, Blue Origin was not seeking funding from the U.S. Air Force to help pay for development of the BE-4. “The most unique feature of the BE-4 engine is that it’s fully funded,” he said. “It’s not something you see in rocket engine programs very often.” [emphasis mine]

Aerojet Rocketdyne wants the government to pay for its new AR-1 engine. To get that done, they need to lobby Congress for funds that are simply unreliable in these days of budget-cutting. Moreover, it means that Aerojet Rocketdyne is not fully committed to the engine: if the funds don’t arrive they won’t build it.

Blue Origin is going forward, fully committed, and will likely deliver, if only because they can’t get their investment back until they do.