After five years of development, Jeff Bezos announced in Twitter this week Blue Origin has successfully completed a hot fire test of its fully reusable BE-4 engine. The hot fire test marks an important milestone for both Blue Origin and the next step in human exploration of space.
— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) October 19, 2017
Blue Origin’s orbital rocket, the New Glenn, will use seven BE-4 engines in its first stage, and a single BE-4 in its second stage. The New Glenn is still in development, but Blue Origin plans to have the 82-meter tall vehicle launch-ready by 2020. The company claims the New Glenn will have capacity to lift 45 tons to low Earth orbit and 13 tons to geostationary transfer orbit — plus, the rocket will be reusable.
The BE-4 engine, which is being developed by Blue Origin with funding help from ULA, is an innovative new design that uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid natural gas (mostly methane) to generate 550,000 pounds of thrust. This hot fire test was conducted at 50% power for three seconds.
The BE-4’s target of 550,000 pounds of thrust is an important metric in the development of rocket engines. Once completed, the engine will become the most powerful rocket engine developed in the US, surpassing the Space Shuttle-era RS-25 engine, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which is being used to power NASA’s SLS (more on that below); and surpassing both SpaceX’s current Merlin engines and its next big engine, called Raptor, which will be used to power SpaceX’s proposed Interplanetary Transport System. Raptor delivers 380,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.
Perhaps more importantly, the BE-4 is also being considered by ULA to replace the Russian-made RD-180 engines on its next generation heavy payload Vulcan launcher. But whether or not ULA will use the engine is up in the air. ULA is also considering AR-1, built by Aerojet Rocketdyne, and which is the preferred engine by some members of Congress.
A new class of rocket engines, undercut by politics
About a month after Aerojet Rocketdyne announced plans to build a manufacturing factory for its AR-1 engine in Huntsville, Alabama, Alabama representative Mike Rogers and Texas representative Mac Thornberry sent a letter to the offices of the US Air Force Secretary and Department of Defense Undersecretary, urging the government agencies to reconsider using “unproven” engines for ULA’s Vulcan. Both Thornberry and Rogers sit on the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee.
“The United States Government must have a hands-on, decision-making role… in any decision made by United Launch Alliance to down-select engines on its proposed Vulcan space launch system, especially where one of the technologies is unproven at the required size and power,” the letter, which was obtained by Ars Technica, stated. “If ULA plans on requesting hundreds of millions of dollars from the USG for development of its launch vehicle and associated infrastructure, then it is not only appropriate but required that the USG have a significant role in the decision-making concerning the vehicle.”
The letter also demanded ULA to provide “full access, oversight of, and approval rights over decision-making” in regard to vendors for the engines it’ll use for its Vulcan launcher.
That presents a bit of a problem for ULA: Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine is as much as two years ahead of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in development — as determined by an assessment conducted by NASA and briefed to Congress in June 2017. Requiring ULA to use the AR-1 could set the Vulcan back a number of years, though Aerojet Rocketdyne has maintained its AR-1 engine is on schedule for flight readiness by 2019.
What’s more, the BE-4 rocket promises to deliver a lot more power for its taxpayer price than the AR-1. The US Air Force has already invested some $536 million in funding to help Aerojet Rocketdyne develop the AR-1, while Blue Origin has largely covered its own development costs, with help from ULA. ULA, on the other hand, received $202 million from the US Air Force for developing the Vulcan launcher.
ULA, in the meantime, has stressed the company hasn’t decided which engine it’ll use yet. But the company has eagerly awaited the hot fire tests of the BE-4, which would help ease concerns about the engine’s technical risks.
Bezos, for his part, has tried to appease the congressional Leviathan by announcing plans to build its own manufacturing facility in Huntsville for its BE-4 engine.
Meanwhile, at NASA…the SLS’s RS-25
Aerojet Rocketdyne conducted a second successful hot fire test of its RS-25 engine. The RS-25 is an older engine design that uses liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX), which Aerojet Rocketdyne is re-purposing for NASA’s SLS rocket. The SLS will use four RS-25 engines in the core stage. Aerojet Rocketdyne has already built the four engines needed for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), which will use the SLS to send the Orion spacecraft beyond the Moon.
Aerojet Rocketdyne is now building the engines for NASA’s second mission for the SLS, the Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), which will carry astronauts aboard NASA’s Orion spacecraft to cislunar space, and possibly beyond.