Air Force sends letter of concern about Vulcan to ULA

According to a report yesterday [behind a paywall], the Air Force has sent a letter of concern to ULA and its joint owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, about the long delays getting its new Vulcan rocket operational.

When the military chose in 2021 ULA and SpaceX to be its two launch providers for the first half of the 2020s, it expected ULA to complete 60% of the launches and SpaceX 40%. It also expected Vulcan to being launching within a year or two, at the latest.

Instead, the first launch of Vulcan did not occur until 2024, and its second launch — required by the military before it will allow Vulcan to launch its payloads — won’t occur until late this year. Worse, the military has a large backlog of launches it has assigned to Vulcan that need to launch quickly.

“I am growing concerned with ULA’s ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rocket and scale its launch cadence to meet our needs,” [Air Force Assistant Secretary Frank] Calvelli wrote. “Currently there is military satellite capability sitting on the ground due to Vulcan delays. ULA has a backlog of 25 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Vulcan launches on contract.”

These 25 launches, Calvelli notes, are due to be completed by the end of 2027. He asked Boeing and Lockheed to complete an “independent review” of United Launch Alliance’s ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rockets and meet its commitments to the military. Calvelli also noted that Vulcan has made commitments to launch dozens of satellites for others over that period, a reference to a contract between United Launch Alliance and Amazon for Project Kuiper satellites.

ULA says that once operations ramp up, it plans to launch Vulcan twice a month. The Air Force doubts about whether that will be possible however are well founded. To meet that schedule ULA will need delivery per month of at least four BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, and so far there is no indication the Bezos company can meet that demand. Delays at Blue Origin in developing that engine are the main reason Vulcan is so far behind schedule in the first place.

In order to get Vulcan operational, ULA needs to fly a second time successfully. The second launch of Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle is booked for that flight, and was originally supposed to launch this spring. Tenacity however was not ready, as it is still undergoing final ground testing. The launch is now set for the fall, but both ULA and the Pentagon are discussing replacing it with a dummy payload should Tenacity experience any more delays.

The source of all of these problems points to Blue Origin. Not only has it been unable to deliver its BE-4 rocket engine on schedule — thus blocking Vulcan — the long delays in developing its own New Glenn orbital rocket (which uses seven BE-4 engines) has given the military fewer launch options. As a result the military has been left with only one rocket company, SpaceX, capable of launching its large payloads.

To put Blue Origin’s problems in perspective, for Blue Origin to finally achieve its many promises and get both Vulcan and New Glenn flying regularly, it will need to begin producing a minimum of 50 to 150 BE-4 engines per year, with two-thirds for its own New Glenn rocket. Right now all evidence suggests the company is having problems building two per year.

In other words, the Pentagon might send a letter of concern to ULA, but it should instead be focusing its ire on Blue Origin.

Blue Origin completes delivery of the two BE-4 engines for ULA’s second Vulcan launch

Blue Origin this week completed delivery of the two BE-4 engines needed for the second launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for sometime this fall.

That launch was originally targeting an April launch, but according to official announcements has been delayed until the fall because final ground testing of its payload, Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle, is not complete. It appears that Blue Origin also contributed to that delay, as it is now obvious that its engines were not available as planned in time for that April launch.

This delay also raises questions about Blue Origin’s ability to ramp up BE-4 engine production to meet the needs of ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Both have large launch contracts with Amazon to launch its Kuiper constellation, while ULA also has almost as many contracts with the U.S. military. To meet those contracts, Blue Origin will have to produce several hundred BE-4 engines yearly in the very near future. Right now it appears it can only produce about one per year.

ULA officially admits first Vulcan launch is delayed to end of year

Though the announcement was not news or unexpected, ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno yesterday officially confirmed that the first Vulcan launch will not occur before the fourth quarter of this year, not this summer as hoped.

In a call with reporters July 13, Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, said the changes to the Centaur upper stage stemmed from an investigation into a test mishap in March, where hydrogen leaked from a Centaur test article and ignited, damaging both the stage and the test rig. The company announced June 24 that it would delay the launch to make “minor reinforcements” to the Centaur.

Bruno also poo-pooed the significance of a failure of a Blue Origin BE-4 engine during a static fire test in mid-June, a failure that had been kept secret until this week.

“This doesn’t indict the qualification at all,” he said, noting that BE-4 engines have more than 26,000 seconds of cumulative runtime. “We’re very confident in the design and the workmanship of the assets that have passed acceptance. This is not unexpected.”

Forgive me if I don’t take him entirely at his word. I guarantee his engineers are looking at that failure very closely to make absolutely sure it doesn’t indicate issues with the two engines on that first Vulcan rocket. It is very likely this is part of the reason that first launch is now delayed until the end of the year.

Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine explodes during test

This failure has been kept very quiet, but on June 11, 2023 during a static fire engine test of a Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, it exploded 10 seconds into the test.

During a firing on June 30 at a West Texas facility of Jeff Bezos’ space company, a BE-4 engine detonated about 10 seconds into the test, according to several people familiar with the matter. Those people described having seen video of a dramatic explosion that destroyed the engine and heavily damaged the test stand infrastructure. The people spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters.

The engine that exploded was expected to finish testing in July. It was then scheduled to ship to Blue Origin’s customer United Launch Alliance for use on ULA’s second Vulcan rocket launch, those people said.

The story is based on anonymous sources, but if true it means another serious setback for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Vulcan has the BE-4 engines it needs to launch its first Vulcan, but it might feel forced to delay that launch until it receives the analysis of this failed test.

It also means that even after more than a decade of development, Blue Origin has still not worked out all the kinks in its BE-4 engine. This inability does not speak well for the company. Are they not testing enough? Are they not questioning their designs enough?

ULA completes dress rehearsal launch countdown and static fire test of Vulcan

ULA yesterday successfully completed a full dress rehearsal launch countdown new Vulcan rocket, including a short 2-second static fire test of the rocket’s two first stage BE-4 engines.

A Vulcan rocket fired its two BE-4 engines in a static-fire test called the Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) at 9:05 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41. The engine start sequence started at T-4.88 seconds, ULA said in a statement an hour after the test, with the engines throttling up to their target level for two seconds before shutting down, concluding the six-second test.

The test appeared to go as planned. “Nominal run,” Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, tweeted moments after the test.

This dress rehearsal had originally been scheduled for late May, but issues on the rocket required ULA to scrub the launch and return the rocket to the assembly building.

There appear to be only three issues remaining before that first launch can occur. First there is the hydrogen leak that caused the destruction of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage during a static fire engine test in March. The company has apparently still not determined what action — if any — must be taken on this.

Second is whether the rocket’s primary payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, is ready for launch. It appears it has completed all ground testing, but there were questions whether its software has been adjusted for a new landing site that NASA assigned it in February.

Third is scheduling. Peregrine’s monthly launch windows are only four to five days long each month. This limitation also has to be juggled with other ULA launches on the same launchpad, using its soon-to-be retired Atlas-5 rocket.

Vulcan launchpad static fire engine test aborted

ULA engineers were forced yesterday to abort their first attempt to complete a launchpad static fire engine test of the first stage of the company’s new Vulcan rocket due to an issue with “the booster’s ignition system.”

[D]uring the countdown at Launch Complex 41 Thursday afternoon, ULA teams “observed a delayed response from the booster engine ignition system,” the company said in a statement. The issue meant that countdown procedures ahead of the ignition of two Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines at the business end of the company’s new rocket had to be halted.

The roughly 200-foot rocket will have to be rolled back into ULA’s nearly 300-foot protective Vertical Integration Facility for technicians to assess the booster’s ignition system.

It will obviously be necessary to attempt this static fire test again before attaching the rocket’s solid-fueled side boosters, which suggests the launch’s tentative target date in June is likely threatened.

These kinds of issues are not unexpected prior to a rocket’s first launch. ULA however is now paying for the three-plus year delay imposed on it by Blue Origin’s delays in delivering the BE-4 engines used in that first stage. These pre-launch tests had been planned for 2020, not 2023. Let us hope that ULA engineers don’t rush these tests now, because of those Blue Origin delays.

ULA now targets May 4th for first Vulcan launch

According to ULA’s CEO, the company has now scheduled the first launch of its Vulcan rocket for May 4, 2023, a delay of about a month from the previous schedule.

The delay to the new date was caused by a variety of factors. First, the launch window for the prime payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, is only open certain days of the month. Second, that lander is just finishing final testing, and the extra time was needed to get it to Cape Canaveral and stacked on the rocket. Third, the extra time was needed to complete all the dress rehearsal countdown tests prior to launch. However, the biggest reason for the delay appears to have been one of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines.

ULA and Blue Origin are finishing the formal qualification of the BE-4 engine, which Bruno described as the “pacing item” for the launch. “It’s taking a little bit longer than anticipated.”

He revealed that, in a qualification test of one of two engines, the liquid oxygen pump had about 5% higher performance than expected or seen on other engines. “When the performance of your hardware has even a small shift that you didn’t expect, sometimes that is telling us that there could be something else going on in the system that is potentially of greater concern.”

ULA and Blue Origin decided to take the engine off the test stand and disassemble it. Engineers concluded that the higher performance was just “unit-to-unit variation” and not a problem with the engine itself, Bruno said.

If Blue Origin was manufacturing and testing these engines as it needs to do, in large numbers, it would have known a long time ago the range of “unit-to-unit variation” in performance. That this is not known at this late time once again tells us that the company is still struggling to build these engines routinely. Yet it will soon need to produce plenty in short order in order to sustain not only ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule but the launch schedule of its own New Glenn rocket.

November 11, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.



Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine experiences more delays

Capitalism in space: Though Blue Origin appears only a few weeks from delivering its first flightworthy BE-4 rocket engine to ULA for use in that company’s new not-yet-launched Vulcan rocket, the second flightworthy engine is further delayed due to technical problems discovered when static fire testing began.

Sources told Ars that the first engine was put onto the test stand in Texas early in August, but almost as soon as work began to hot-fire the powerful engine, an issue was discovered with the engine build. This necessitated a shipment back to Blue Origin’s factory in mid-August, as the company’s test stands in Texas do not allow for more than minor work.

As a result of this technical issue, ULA now appears likely to get one flight engine this month, but it probably will not receive the other one for installation onto the Vulcan rocket before mid-October, assuming a clean battery of tests in Texas.

This issue almost certainly means that Vulcan will not attempt its first launch this year. The rocket is thus more than three years behind schedule.

The problems outlined here however are far greater than simply the technical issues with this one engine. First, Blue Origin’s pace of operations continues to be far too leisurely. Nothing the company has done since 2017 has proceeded with any sense of urgency, and thus neither ULA nor Blue Origin have been able to launch their rockets.

Second, and far more important, Blue Origin is supposed to be manufacturing the BE-4 for two rockets, both Vulcan and its own New Glenn. Neither rocket will be reusable to begin with, which means the number of needed engines required at first will be high. For example, ULA has contracts to launch Vulcan twice almost immediately, with the need to follow these with several military launches. Each launch will require two BE-4 engines, so Blue Origin at a minimum needs to manufacture four engines, probably more, just to fulfill its obligations to ULA. To supply its own New Glenn rocket, it needs seven BE-4 engines for each launch, with the company having four launches on its manifest for 2023.

All told, Blue Origin thus has to deliver, at a minimum, 32 engines in 2023 alone, to meet its contractual obligations. And since the rockets and engines will be untested, expect at least one or two launch failures that will further increase the need for more engines.

Yet, there is no sign that Blue Origin has figured out how to manufacture these engines on an assembly line basis. Even if it gets these two engines delivered soon, it is unclear it can produce a lot of flightworthy engines fast enough to meet this launch schedule. Expect therefore that both rockets will continue to experience launch delays that could stretch out years.

Meanwhile, a plethora of new rocket companies have been appearing, all aiming eventually to compete with Blue Origin and ULA. If Blue Origin doesn’t get a move on, these new companies will soon be in a position to replace both it and ULA, entirely.

August 29, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay:

As I’ve said numerous times, I’ll believe this engine is a flight engine when I see it in flight.

The link goes to the research paper from the Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity, which is in Chinese except for the abstract. This tweet highlights the “leg deploying test and full-scale landing impact experiment” from that paper.

Today’s Twitter links

Today I am beginning a new mid-day feature on Behind the Black, thanks to the effort of reader Jay, who has recently been acting as a stringer by sending me new stories he finds on Twitter. I don’t do Twitter, so his help has been very much appreciated.

Most of these Twitter stories however do not merit a full post. Most are usually just interesting images, or PR updates from companies and space agencies announcing future events. Up to now I check them out, and then file them away. I decided we might as well post them each day, all at once, in a single post. Jay has agreed to gladly help make this happen.

So, let’s begin:

It is unknown how much information China will release much about this launch. Stay tuned.

I will only believe Blue Origin has delivered a flightworthy engine to ULA when ULA actually begins installing that engine on a Vulcan rocket. Until then, I view everything Blue Origin posts on Twitter on this subject to be nothing more than empty air.

NASA delays launch of its VIPER lunar rover to over concerns about commercial lander

VIPER's planned route on the Moon
VIPER’s planned route at the Moon’s south pole

In order to do more engineering tests of Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander, NASA has now delayed the launch of its VIPER lunar rover from November 2023 to November 2024.

NASA’s decision to pursue a 2024 delivery date results from the agency’s request to Astrobotic for additional ground testing of the company’s Griffin lunar lander, which will deliver VIPER to the lunar surface through CLPS. The additional tests aim to reduce the overall risk to VIPER’s delivery to the Moon. To complete the additional NASA-mandated tests of the Griffin lunar lander, an additional $67.8 million has been added to Astrobotic’s CLPS contract, which now totals $320.4 million.

Though the press release makes no mention of it, the launch of Astrobotic’s Griffin lander is partly dependent on the launch of Astrobotic’s first and smaller lunar lander, Peregrine, which was originally supposed to fly on the inaugural flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, in 2021. That rocket’s first flight however has been delayed repeatedly because of delays by Blue Origin in completing development of the BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage. It is presently scheduled for early 2023, but that date remains tentative. This new delay of Griffin could be to make sure Peregrine flies first.

Regardless, this new budget increase means that the budget for Griffin has experienced a 62% cost overrun from its original $199 million number. This large increase in what is supposed to be a fixed price contract suggests that Astrobotic has been having some problems unstated by NASA, despite an inspector general report [pdf] that said all was going reasonably well.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine set for “commissioning” tests

Capitalism in space: According to a tweet from Blue Origin on June 21, 2022, engineers have finally installed a flight-worthy engine on the test stand in Huntsville for static fire “commissioning” tests.

This is an engine that was supposed to be delivered to ULA for its new Vulcan rocket more than two years ago. With final engine tests only beginning now, it likely means the engine will not be delivered for at least several more months.

ULA will then have to install it in the rocket, and do its own fueling and static fire tests. All this suggests that a Vulcan launch before the end of this year is almost impossible.

When Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket will fly using the BE-4 is utterly unknown. ULA at least has built a full-scale test version of Vulcan and done launch countdown rehearsals in order to iron out issues with its launchpad and ground systems. Blue Origin has done none of this.

Vulcan likely delayed until ’23

According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, continuing delays with both the rocket’s payload and main engines, ULA’s Vulcan rocket will almost certainly not launch before the end of this year, as hoped by the company.

The rocket’s first stage BE-4 engines are being built by Blue Origin, and are already four years behind schedule. According to Berger’s sources, they will not be delivered to ULA until mid-August, which makes a launch in ’22 very unlikely, especially because both the engines and rocket are new, and will need time for fitting and further testing as a unit.

As for the payload, Berger’s assessment is not based on any new information. The payload, Astrobotic’s first lunar lander dubbed Peregrine, has also been experiencing delays, but the article provides no further information on whether it will miss its targets to be ready in ’22.

Regardless, it appears that Blue Origin is still dragging in its effort to build the BE-4 engine. If Vulcan cannot launch this year, it will threaten ULA’s long term future, since the company is depending on it to replace its Atlas-5 and Delta rockets. The delays now are allowing others to catch up and grab business that ULA might have garnered had Vulcan been operational as planned.

ULA orders 116 rocket engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for its Vulcan upper stage

Capitalism in space: In order to meet its contract with Amazon to launch a lot of Kuiper satellites, ULA has now ordered 116 rocket engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for the Centaur upper stage of its new and as-yet unlaunched Vulcan-Centaur rocket.

Aerojet said this was the company’s largest ever contract for the RL10 engine. The large purchase of rocket engines comes on the heels of Amazon’s announcement April 5 that it selected Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA to launch up to 3,236 satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband constellation.

CEO Tory Bruno said ULA plans to fly Vulcan’s first mission late in 2022. Winning the Amazon deal would more than double the annual rate of Vulcan launches to as many as 25 per year, and ULA will ramp up production to meet the demand, Bruno said last week at the Space Symposium.

ULA’s engine choice for Vulcan’s upper stage dates back to 2018 when it selected a variant of the RL10, the same engine used to power the upper stages of ULA’s legacy rockets Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy. Over the past 60 years, more than 450 RL10 engines have flown on various ULA heritage vehicles.

Meanwhile, ULA hopes to get its first BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, needed for the Vulcan first stage, this summer. Vulcan-Centaur cannot make its first launch until it gets some flightworthy BE-4 engines, and these are now three years behind schedule.

Blue Origin delays 1st New Glenn launch again

Capitalism in space: At a conference earlier this week Blue Origin officials confirmed that the first test flight of its orbital New Glenn rocket will not occur in ’22, but will be delayed again, into ’23.

New Glenn was originally supposed to launch in 2020, and has been delayed repeatedly since then, first because of new requirements imposed by the military and then because of delays in getting Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine operational.

Though ULA is still aiming to launch its Vulcan rocket using the BE-4 in 2022, expect it to eventually recognize reality and delay also to ’23. That rocket was also supposed to make its first launch in ’20, and has been delayed for the same reasons.

These delays have cost both companies dearly. For example, had each been operational as planned, they might have won some or all of the launch contracts that OneWeb lost from the Russians. Instead, that business went to SpaceX.

Russia blocks future rocket engine sales to U.S.

Dmitry Rogozin, head of Roscosmos, today announced that Russia will no longer sell any rocket engines to U.S. companies.

The head of Roscosmos, Dmitry Rogozin, announced the new policy in an interview with the Russia 24 TV channel. “Today we have made a decision to halt the deliveries of rocket engines produced by NPO Energomash to the United States,” Rogozin said in the interview, according to Russia’s state press site Tass. “Let me remind you that these deliveries had been quite intensive somewhere since the mid-1990s.” Rogozin also added: “Let them fly on something else, their broomsticks, I don’t know what,” according to Reuters.

Russian engines are used on two American rockets, ULA’s Atlas-5 and Northrop Grumman’s Antares. The Atlas-4 however is being phased out, and has already received all the engines it needs for all of that rocket’s remaining flights. ULA plans to replace it with its new Vulcan rocket, using Blue Origin’s (long delayed) BE-4 engine.

Antares however is a more serious issue. Northrop Grumman uses this rocket to launch Cygnus freighters to ISS. It depends on two Russian engines for its Ukrainian-built first stage. The Ukraine War now probably makes building more Antares rockets impossible, which means at some point Northrop Grumman will no longer be able to supply ISS with cargo using Cygnus. Furthermore, NASA’s plan to use Cygnus’ engines to maintain ISS’s orbit will be impacted if Cygnus launches to ISS cease.

There is an option, though it too has issues. ULA has already launched one Cygnus to ISS using its Atlas-5. Though this rocket is going away, ULA could probably use its Vulcan instead — assuming Blue Origin finally gets the BE-4 engine operational so that Vulcan can finally launch.

Overall, Russia’s decision might cause a temporary blip in the American space effort, but if the government doesn’t get in the way I think that competition will force a solution. As Aesop said, necessity is the mother of invention.

More delays for Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: According to a report yesterday at Ars Technica, more delays are expected in the delivery of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, possibly preventing the first launch of Vulcan from occurring in ’22.

Testing suggests the engine itself is functioning well. However:

Blue Origin is unlikely to deliver two flight-ready versions of the BE-4 rocket engine to United Launch Alliance (ULA) before at least the second quarter of 2022, two sources say. This increases the possibility that the debut flight of ULA’s much-anticipated new rocket, Vulcan, could slip into 2023.

Vulcan’s first stage is powered by two BE-4 engines, which burn methane and are more powerful than the space shuttle’s main engines. The sources said there recently was a “relatively small” production issue with fabrication of the flight engines at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Washington. [emphasis mine]

Translation of the highlighted words: We have built the engine, it is working great, but we have suddenly discovered we haven’t figured out the mass production process for building it quickly and in large numbers so as to support numerous launches by both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets.

ULA claims it can get Vulcan off the ground only a few months after getting those flightworthy BE-4 engines because it has done most of the design work using the dummy “pathfinder” BE-4 engines Blue Origin provided last year. Don’t believe it. The company is going to have to install working engines on Vulcan, and then do static fire tests to validate not only the rocket but its entire launch process. Such testing usually takes months, and is rarely completed in less than half a year, even by SpaceX.

These problems at Blue Origin means that both Vulcan and New Glenn will likely launch more three years behind schedule. Instead of 2020, both will fly no earlier than 2023, at best.

BE-4 engine delayed until ’22

Capitalism in space: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, admitted yesterday that the first production versions of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine, required for his company’s new Vulcan rocket, will not be delivered until until early ’22.

Bruno had previously said he expected the engines in late 2021 but on Friday he confirmed the BE-4s will not arrive until early 2022. “I was hoping to get those engines for Christmas. I had giant stockings at home waiting for them,” Bruno quipped in the CNBC interview.

“I’ll say it’s taking them a little longer to fabricate my production engines. They’re in the factory now being built at Blue Origin,” said Bruno. “The COVID epidemic has affected them and their supply chain and it’s just taking a little bit longer, but they’re doing very, very well,” he added. “There’s been no problems with them and in fact, we’re doing the final testing, or what we call certification testing. And that is just going really, really well.”

It appears that Blue Origin is dealing with the difficulties of production, not design, at this point, the same kind of issue that SpaceX recently revealed with its Raptor engine. Blue Origin needs to be able to manufacture these engines at a somewhat high pace, as both ULA’s Vulcan and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket use it. It appears that in designing it Blue Origin didn’t think about the manufacturing until very late in the game.

Bruno also said that he plans on flying Vulcan twice in ’22. We shall see.

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.

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