ULA’s Vulcan rocket, powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, is scheduled to make its first launch in 2020. (credit: ULA)
by Jeff Foust
What was announced four years ago at a splashy press conference in Washington finally concluded last week with a simple press release.
In September 2014, Tory Bruno, the still-new CEO of United Launch Alliance, took the stage at a Washington press conference with Jeff Bezos, the founder and funder of Blue Origin. The two announced they were working together to develop a new rocket engine, the BE-4, for use on a future, still-undefined next generation launch vehicle (see “ULA, Blue Origin and the BE-4 engine”, The Space Review, September 29, 2014).
It was long a foregone conclusion in the space industry that ULA would eventually pick the BE-4 for Vulcan, barring either a major technical setback for Blue Origin or some other unforeseen event. The only question was when the company would make that decision. For months Bruno had been coy when asked about the timing of that decision, typically saying it would come “soon.” More recently, he said the decision was coming “very soon” or even “very, very soon,” but the company was never more specific.
Finally, on September 27, the decision came in the form of a press release from ULA: it had indeed, finally, picked the BE-4 for Vulcan.
“Vulcan Centaur will revolutionize spaceflight and provide affordable, reliable access to space for our current and future customers,” Bruno said in the statement. “We are pleased to enter into this partnership with Blue Origin and look forward to a successful first flight of our next-generation launch vehicle.”
Part of the delay in making the decision was to give Blue Origin time to conduct enough tests to make ULA confident that the engine would perform as expected. Blue Origin conducted the first hotfire test of the engine last October and had been gradually ramping up thrust levels and burn times.
“It’s performing quite well,” Bob Smith, CEO of Blue Origin, said during a panel discussion at the World Satellite Business Week conference in Paris September 11. “We’ve gone through several hundred seconds of firing, including an over 200-second firing of that engine, so we’re feeling very good about its progress and what we’re going to be able to deliver to the market, as well as for our own consumption.”
Another factor in the delay was protracted negotiations between the companies about the terms of the contract. Neither company disclosed the details, including the number of engines ULA will buy and at what price, and over what period of time.
Those engines will be built at a factory Blue Origin is developing in Huntsville, Alabama. “We can’t thank Tory Bruno and the entire United Launch Alliance team enough for entrusting our engine to power Vulcan,” Smith said in a statement. “The Blue team is looking forward to developing our production facility for our BE-4 engine in Huntsville over the next year.”
The decision got the endorsement of Sheila Widnall, a former secretary of the Air Force who served on ULA’s “independent non-advocate review” (INAR) team, a group of outside experts that advised ULA on its engine selection.
“After extensive briefing and consultation, INAR expressed full confidence in ULA’s approach and in the criteria used to evaluate suppliers in reaching a decision on parts for the Vulcan Centaur,” she wrote in an op-ed (initially illustrated, confusingly, by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy.) The decision “will significantly lower the cost of launch services for the Vulcan, while still enabling it to surpass current capabilities.”
ULA couched the selection of the BE-4 as part an industry team that is providing various key elements of the launch vehicle. That includes Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (the former Orbital ATK), which will supply the solid-fuel strap-on boosters; L-3 Avionics Systems, which will provide the rocket’s avionics; and Ruag Space, which will make the rocket’s payload fairing.
That industry team also features Aerojet Rocketdyne, whose RL10 engine will power the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage under an agreement announced earlier this year. However, Aerojet had been in the running to provide the first stage engine as well, developing the AR1 engine with support from the US Air Force.
The AR1, though, was running well behind the BE-4: while the BE-4 started hotfire tests last year, the AR1 was not expected to be ready to begin such tests before 2019. That raise doubts that the engine would be ready on ULA’s current schedule for Vulcan’s development, which calls for a first flight no earlier than mid-2020.
In July, Aerojet Rocketdyne noted in a quarterly financial report that it had renegotiated its agreement with the Air Force to fund development of the AR1. The total value of the agreement was slashed from $804 million to $353.8 million, with the goal shifting from completing development of the AR1 by the end of 2019 to just “design, build, and assemble” a single prototype engine. The financing, done as a cost-sharing agreement between the company and the Air Force, was also restructured so that the company’s “cash contributions” to the agreement “are now complete.”
Company officials has more recently deemphasized the AR1 program in public comments, focusing on ULA’s decision to use the RL10 engine in Vulcan’s upper stage as well as a separate agreement with the former Orbital ATK to use the same engine in its proposed OmegA EELV-class launch vehicle. The company also has extensive work on the RS-25 engine that will be used by NASA’s Space Launch System, including a new version of the once-reusable engine optimized for use on the expendable SLS.
But with the BE-4 finally selected for Vulcan, the focus can turn to development of the rocket itself. A key upcoming milestone is the impending selection by the US Air Force of as many as three companies for what it calls Launch Services Agreements, awards that will provide funding for the development of next-generation launch vehicles. ULA is among the companies seeking awards, along with SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and… Blue Origin.
That competition highlights the unusual arrangement between Blue Origin and ULA. On one hand, Blue Origin is a supplier to ULA, but on the other, it is a likely competitor as it develops its New Glenn launch vehicle, also expected to make its first launch in 2020 regardless of whether or not it receives Air Force support.
Smith, played up ULA’s strengths in the government launch market, calling ULA “is the premier launch service provider for national security missions” in his statement about the BE-4 selection. “We’re thrilled to be part of their team and that mission.”
But Smith has also indicated that the company is interested in seeking government launch business for New Glenn as well. It’s not clear how seriously it will pursue that business, but even if it sticks to the commercial market it will likely end up competing head-to-head with ULA (and other providers) for commercial satellite customers.
Bruno has also said that funding for Vulcan will come from its suppliers, which presumably will include Blue Origin. “I can’t share with you what the total investment is,” he said of Vulcan’s costs at the Paris conference. “I can tell that a good portion of that investment comes from our supply chain as they have sort of joined us in confidence of that market and that vehicle. There’s also a co-share investment from the government, which is a relatively small portion in comparison to industry.”
So while the decision on selecting BE-4 has finally been made, the tangled relationship between Blue Origin and ULA—part cooperation and part competition—may take much longer to work out.