Blue Origin’s BE-4 Engine Begins to Enter the Spotlight

BE-4 Powered Booster Credit: Blue Origin

BE-4 Powered Booster
Credit: Blue Origin

Earlier this week, Blue Origin finally opened the doors of its Kent, Washington headquarters to a small group of reporters. Although the overall purpose was to begin to pull the veil off a privately funded space development effort which up until now has inevitably been accompanied by the word “secretive,” one emerging theme was to highlight the company’s BE-4 engine.

The Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) BE-4 is central to Blue Origin’s plans; intended to serve as means of cash flow through sales to United Launch Alliance for its Vulcan booster, and a little further down the road, to provide the lifting power for the company’s own orbital booster. That booster, details of which should be released later this year, currently goes by the nickname “Really Big Brother” and will be built at a factory which is being constructed outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For now however, Jeff Bezos’ company needs to lock down a supplier arrangement with United Launch Alliance for the Vulcan. While ULA has indicated that the BE-4 is in the lead position to power the new rocket which is intended to replace the Atlas V and Delta IV, rival Aerojet Rocketdyne is pulling out all the stops in an effort to get full consideration its AR-1 kerosene oxygen engine in a direct replacement of the Atlas V’s RD-180. One of those stops is Congressional pressure on the Air Force to restrict its support of replacement efforts to engines only, as opposed to a broader (and more logical) program to consider launch systems as whole. An “engine only” move would virtually guarantee Aerojet Rocketdyne the business through a new lease on life for the Atlas V, likely kicking the Vulcan project either down the road, or simply over to the curb.

ULA’s parent companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which rejected an offer last year to buy the joint venture, or failing that, to sell the plans to the Atlas V, have already telegraphed that the Vulcan’s leash is a short one through only committing funding on a quarter by quarter basis.  Given the fact that the Air Force has awarded the largest of four propulsion development contracts to Aerojet Rockedyne, one that carries a possible extended value of $536 million, it may not be stretch to conclude that while ULA wants the BE-4 and Vulcan, its parents might be happier with the taxpayer picking up the tab for the AR-1 and being relieved of the cost and risk of developing a new booster.

In order to combat that effort, Blue Origin needs wider recognition of its company, and it flagship product. Opening the doors to press is a good way to start. And putting more information out for the general public is a good way to follow up, so perhaps not surprisingly, Jeff Bezos released the following update on the BE-4 yesterday.

From Blue Origin Founder Jeff Bezos:

BE-4 Chamber/Nozzle Instrumented for Testing Credit: Blue Origin

BE-4 Chamber/Nozzle Instrumented for Testing
Credit: Blue Origin

“BE-4 testing is well underway at Blue Origin. To date, we’ve completed more than 170 staged-combustion tests – including 51 starts on a single regeneratively cooled chamber and nozzle. The preburner performed flawlessly and the main injector consistently demonstrated performance at the high end of our predictions, giving us confidence that we’ll get good specific impulse when we go to full-scale engine testing later this year.

We’re building two new test cells. The first is a high-pressure cell that lets us run short-duration, full-scale isolated preburner tests. We’ll use this cell to refine the ignition sequence and understand the start transients. The second is another full engine test cell. Having two full engine test positions will allow us to further increase the testing pace.

One of the many benefits of a privately funded engine development is that we can make and implement decisions quickly. Building these two new test cells is a $10 million commitment, and we as a team made the decision to move forward in 10 minutes.  Less than three weeks later we were pouring the needed three-foot thick foundations. Private funding and rapid decision making are two of the reasons why the BE-4 is the fastest path to eliminate U.S. dependence on the Russian-made RD-180.

Gradatim Ferociter!

Jeff Bezos

End release

Posted in: Blue Origin

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