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.

August 23, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay:

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.

Astrobotics unveils nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Astrobotics yesterday unveiled its nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander, scheduled for launch later this year on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

The lander is still being assembled, said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. Remaining work includes installation of its solar panels, two fuel tanks and decks holding payloads. The engines are “just about done,” he said, and will soon be installed.

He was optimistic that remaining work will be done quickly. “In just a couple months’ time, this will be heading out to environmental testing,” he said, followed by shipment to the launch site late this year.

This announcement now strongly suggests that Peregrine would not have been ready for Vulcan’s original launch date in late 2021. Since then the delays by Blue Origin in developing Vulcan’s first stage BE-4 engine has pushed the rocket’s first launch back by more than a year, time that apparently Astrobotics needed to finish Peregrine.

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.

Blue Origin’s engine division manager leaves company; first BE-4 engines arriving in May

Capitalism in space: The head of Blue Origin’s rocket engine division has decided to leave the company, even as it was revealed that the first flight worthy BE-4 engines will not be delivered to ULA until May at the earliest.

According to company sources, the first two BE-4 flight engines are in final production at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Washington. The first of these engines is scheduled to be shipped to a test site in May for “acceptance testing” to ensure its flight readiness. A second should follow in reasonably short order. On this schedule, Blue Origin could conceivably deliver both flight engines to United Launch Alliance in June or July. Sources at Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance say development versions of the BE-4—which are nearly identical to the flight versions—have been performing well in tests.

Upon receiving the engines, United Launch Alliance plans to install two of the BE-4s on the Vulcan rocket for a debut launch as soon as possible. While at the Satellite 2022 conference in the District of Columbia, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno on Tuesday said he still anticipates that Vulcan’s debut launch will occur in 2022. However, a summertime delivery would be a very tight schedule for United Launch Alliance.

ULA was initially promised these engines more than three years ago. The delay not only put its Vulcan rocket three years behind schedule, it has delayed the development of Blue Origin’s own orbital rocket, New Glenn, by more than three years as well.

To supply the needed engines for both rockets Blue Origin will need to establish a production line that can churn them out at a much faster pace than indicated so far. Whether it can remains an unknown, with the exit now of the head of the company’s engine division making that unknown even more worrisome.

Blue Origin expands its rocket engine factory in Alabama

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday revealed that it is hiring 300 more engineers and expanding the rocket engine factory in Alabama in order to produce flight worthy BE-3 and BE-4 engines.

Blue Origin in Huntsville spent the pandemic supporting the company’s main engine plant in Kent Washington with parts for the company’s BE-3 and larger BE-4 engines, [site lead Nathan] Harris said. “We are now actually in the process of building our first set of complete engines through our facility,” he said. Those first engines will be produced this year.

…“We’re getting very close,” Harris said. “They’re still doing quite a bit of retrofitting. As you learn, anytime you retrofit something that’s over 60 years old, it takes a little bit more and there’s a little bit more that you unearth that was undiscovered.”

Harris said he expects to be testing the BE-3 “in the next couple of months followed shortly by the BE-4.” [emphasis mine]

This may be good news for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket as well as Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket. Both need the BE-4 engine, and both have been delayed years because it has not been ready on time. While the engine problems appear to have been resolved, Blue Origin had not put any thought into developing a practical and affordable manufacturing process that would allow it to build enough engines to serve both itself and ULA.

This expansion at the engine factory suggests the company is finally moving into its production phase. The highlighted sentence above however also tells us that the first flight worthy BE-4 engines are still months away, which will further delay launch of Vulcan and New Glenn. It is now certain that neither will launch this year, putting both rockets more than three years behind schedule.

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.

Amazon picks rocket startup ABL to launch 1st two prototype Kuiper satellites

Capitalism in space: Amazon has chosen the smallsat startup rocket company ABL to launch its first two prototype Kuiper satellites, with that launch targeted for ’22.

KuiperSat-1 and KuiperSat-2 will reach orbit via the RS1, a new rocket developed by California-based ABL Space Systems. Amazon also announced today that it has signed a multi-launch deal with ABL to provide these early Project Kuiper launches.

The 88-foot-tall (27 meters) RS1 is capable of launching 2,975 pounds (1,350 kilograms) of payload to LEO, according to its ABL specifications page. ABL is charging $12 million for each launch of the two-stage rocket. The RS1 has not flown yet, but ABL has said that it aims to conduct a debut launch from Alaska’s Pacific Spaceport Complex before the end of 2021.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced that it had signed a deal with United Launch Alliance (ULA), whose Atlas V rocket will loft operational Project Kuiper craft on nine different launches.

Does anyone notice what rocket company has not won these contracts, even though its owner is also Amazon’s founder and biggest shareholder? That’s right, as far as I can tell, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket has apparently not won any contracts to launch Amazon’s Kuiper satellites. Notice also that the deal with ULA uses its Atlas-5 rocket, not its new Vulcan rocket, even though ULA wants Vulcan to replace the Atlas-5 beginning in ’22.

Since both New Glenn and Vulcan depend on Blue Origin’s troubled BE-4 rocket engine, these contracts strongly suggest that the engine’s technical problems have not yet been solved, and that neither rocket will be flying in ’22 as both companies have promised.

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.

ULA to temporarily stop using new engine nozzle because of vibration issue

Capitalism in space: Because of an unexpected vibration issue seen during its first launches, ULA engineers have decided to temporarily stop using a new engine nozzle developed for the upper stage of both its Atlas 5 and new Vulcan rocket.

ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno said June 23 that the company is studying the data from the flight and has not yet decided what corrective action, if any, it might take. In the meantime, the new version of the RL10 [engine] with the carbon nozzle extension will not be used in upcoming Atlas 5 missions, Bruno said during a talk at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability.

Concerns about vibrations in the engine led ULA to delay the launch of the Space Force STP-3 mission that had been scheduled for June 23 and was planned to fly with the enhanced RL10. The company has not announced a new launch date for STP-3. ULA first plans to launch Boeing’s Starliner Orbital Flight Test 2 mission to the International Space Station scheduled for July 30. “It’ll be several missions, probably next year” before ULA decides whether to fly the RL10 configuration with the nozzle extension, said Bruno. The company wants to be “fully satisfied that we understand it.”

Below the fold is the live stream from that May launch, cued to show that vibration. It is their intention to go back to the older nozzle configuration for the next few launches.
» Read more

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.

SpaceX grabbing 90% of the launch contracts to the Moon

Capitalism in space: The announcement yesterday by Firefly that it has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its Blue Ghost lunar lander mission (scheduled for launch in ’23) is significant because it continues a remarkable pattern of dominance by SpaceX of the lunar launch market.

Right now, of the seven scheduled robot missions to the Moon, SpaceX will launch all but one. The full list, in no particular order:

In addition, SpaceX launched Israel’s Beresheet lander in 2019 on a Falcon 9.

Furthermore, SpaceX has won the contract from NASA for the agency’s first manned lunar lander, using Starship. It has also won the contract to launch the initial components of NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station on a Falcon Heavy.

There are other lunar missions in the works (by Russia, China, and others), but these are all the launches awarded as commercial contracts to private rocket companies in recent years. Thus, of these ten lunar missions, SpaceX has launched or is launching nine. That’s a 90% market share!
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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.

Space Force awards launch contracts (two each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: On March 9th the Space Force announced that it has awarded four new launch contracts, two each to ULA and SpaceX, for a total cost of just under $400 million, all to launch in ’23.

Under the task orders issued March 9, ULA and SpaceX will each launch two missions. ULA was awarded $225 million to launch and integrate the USSF-112 and USSF-87 missions on its Vulcan Centaur rockets while SpaceX was awarded $160 million to launch and integrate USSF-36 and launch NROL-69 on its Falcon 9 rockets.

Based on these numbers it appears ULA is charging about $113 million per launch for its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, while SpaceX is charging about $80 million using its Falcon 9.

For ULA, that is less that what it would charge using its Atlas 5 rocket, but not by much. For SpaceX this price is high, probably because the military might be demanding the company use new boosters for its launches.

These high prices for both are to me a sign of how little our federal government cares about saving any money for the taxpayer. While the competition brought on by SpaceX’s arrival is saving the military money, the way these contract awards are structured, with both ULA and SpaceX guaranteed to win them, neither company has an incentive to reduce its prices. Instead, they can overcharge and the military can do nothing about it.

In a more sane world the military would use the competition in the launch market to get an ever better deal. Instead, our federal government sees its budget as a blank check, and they are using it.

1st Vulcan test core stage arrives at Kennedy

Capitalism in space: ULA’s first complete Vulcan core stage, meant at this point only for testing launch procedures, has arrived at Cape Canaveral.

After connecting the launch platform and the rocket to gas and electrical systems at the pad, ULA engineers will run the Vulcan booster and the ground infrastructure through a series of exercises, culminating in loading of thousands of gallons of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen into the rocket.

Once these tests are complete, the stage will be returned to ULA’s facility in Alabama to be refitted with flight worthy BE-4 engines so it can fly on a later mission. The engines presently attached are test engines.

ULA expects the first flightworthy BE-4 engines to be delivered by Blue Origin by the summer. These will then be incorporated into the first Vulcan to fly (hopefully before the end of the year) and carrying Astrobotic’s unmanned Peregrine lunar lander.

That rocket, as will all Vulcan rockets for the foreseeable future, will be entirely expendable. Though ULA says it intends at some point to recover for reuse the engines of the core stage, they have not delineated a time schedule for when that will happen.

At this point the only customer ULA has for this rocket is the government — especially the military. Vulcan cannot compete in price with SpaceX’s rockets, so I doubt any commercial satellite company will be much interested in it. The military will pay the extra bucks, because it wants more than one launch company for redundancy, and it has already committed to buying Vulcans for the next five years.

Of course, that long term commitment to Vulcan by the military will likely change if other cheaper rockets enter the market. At the present the military is limiting bidding on future launches to just SpaceX and ULA. That cannot hold up in court if other viable rocket companies wish to bid. Expect those new companies to do what SpaceX did when the Air Force refused to let it bid on military launches about five years ago, sue, and win in court.

At that point ULA’s an entirely expendable Vulcan will be very vulnerable to losing its last customer. ULA must make this rocket reusable or it will die as a company.

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.

Northrop Grumman successfully test solid rocket booster for ULA’s Vulcan

Capitalism in space: Northrop Grumman today announced that it has successfully test fired the strap-on solid rocket booster, qualifying it for flight, for use on ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

In the Jan. 21 static test, the motor fired for approximately 90 seconds, producing nearly 449,000 pounds of thrust to validate the performance capability of the motor, the company said. The firing also verified the motor’s internal insulation, propellant grain ballistics and nozzle in high temperatures.

If all goes right Vulcan will make its inaugural flight later this year.

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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