Monday, October 26, 2020

United Launch Alliance CEO Says Blue Origin Has Solved The Engine Problem

Just last Thursday, some of us were speculating that since we haven't heard anything out of Blue Origin in quite a while, something must be going wrong in the development of the BE-4 engine and New Glenn booster. 

Today, Ars Technica relays the news that ULA CEO Tory Bruno confirmed that, in a way, by announcing Blue Origin had fixed their issues. 
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.

Blue Origin has been hotfire-testing the BE-4 engine for about three years, but there have been rumors of development challenges. Bruno himself confirmed during an interview two months ago that the turbopumps, which feed propellant at high pressure into the BE-4 combustion chamber, still required some troubleshooting. "It isn’t easy, but we know we can do it," he told the Denver Business Journal in August.
Blue Origin has been working on developing the BE-4 for the better part of the past decade. The BE-4 is a staged-combustion design running on methane and liquid oxygen. The engine will power ULA's Vulcan-Centaur as well as BO's New Glenn rocket, which Ars reports is unlikely to fly before at least 2022.  It may seem odd for competing rockets to use the same engine, but as Bruno has explained, it was less expensive for ULA to procure its main engines from Blue Origin than Aerojet Rocketdyne.

It has been said that the launch business may not exactly be "winner take all," but it certainly seems to be "winner take most." Let's assume for a minute that the SpaceX Starship meets its design goals and reaches orbit in 2021. They might not take every bit of business from the New Glenn, but it sure seems like they'll take most of it.  The New Glenn goes up against a launch vehicle that's bigger, and carries more payload to any orbit at a lower price?  Where exactly does that say "Winner" for New Glenn?

That aspect aside, I thought I'd post this story in light of the discussion about this in the comments last Thursday and Friday.


  1. So?

    As you said, it looks like BO won't be flight ready till 2022. And they say they have solved the problems, but... pictures are worth a thousand words, videos are worth a thousand pictures.

    BO being all secretive and such has hurt them far more than showing repeated failures. At least a failure and an honest after-failure report shows progress. (Something Boeing needs to be doing better at, too, as they have no excuse for their overall incompetence and plain stupidity.)

    It will be nice if BO actually does do something. But it's Bezos...

  2. Competition in the private space exploration arena would be great. I wonder what the difference between a staged combustion and full-flow rocket engine are, BE-4 vs. Raptor?

    From what was talked about shortly on a previous thread regarding nuclear fusion engines, I found a webpage of significance:

    Princeton Satellite Systems - Nuclear Fusion Propulsion

    There is a lot of reading on that page but I don't know how much is paywalled until I try to read it.

    1. I will answer my own question about the combustion cycle. Both the BE-4 and Raptor are staged combustion engines. In a staged combustion engine the fuel and oxidizer are burned in a preburner to power the turbopumps; the exhausts from the preburner is exhausted to the main combustion chamber. The difference between the two is that the BE-4 has a single preburner and shaft to power both the oxidizer and fuel turbopumps while the Raptor on the other hand has two preburners to power the turbopumps. The Raptor is more complex than the BE-4 but can be better tuned for efficiency.

    2. Thanks for coming back to answer that. This sounds like a classic engineering trade. Two preburners to power two pumps in the Raptor obviously allows more chance for a single point failure to cause and engine to fail than the single preburner in the BE-4, but gives the advantage of allowing more tuning and optimization of the engine. As always, I think anyone could see both sides. The right one to choose depends on the system design goals and the big picture goals. I wouldn't be surprised if the Raptor is more repairable, considering the goal is on the order of 30 of those in a Super Heavy (I think the current number is 28).

      The Princeton Direct Fusion Drive video is worthwhile for everyone to go look at!

  3. The New Glenn goes up against a launch vehicle that's bigger, and carries more payload to any orbit at a lower price? Where exactly does that say "Winner" for New Glenn?

    This company has a huge contract to do the CIA's computing. I'm sure holding all the dirty secrets on all the politicians in a nicely indexed manner will have no influence whatsoever on how procurements are awarded.