Tuesday, March 22, 2022

ULA's Vulcan Schedule Slips Out - “Late '22?”

This afternoon, the news broke that as Blue Origin goes through the "last mile" of delivering the first two flight-ready BE-4 Methalox (Methane-Oxygen) engines for ULA's new Vulcan booster, the VP of Blue Origin's Engines group announced he's leaving the company.   Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith told employees of the departure of John Vilja, the senior vice president of Blue Engines in a Corporate email.  

ULA CEO Tory Bruno (l) and Blue Origin's Jeff Bezos pose with a miniature model of the BE-4.  Win McNamee/Getty Images from 2014.  

The last "will deliver by" date that I have for these engines is "by the end of 2021."  Eric Berger from Ars Technica re-Tweeted this bit of humor for interpreting the dates they talk about for those of us following.  As the dates get more specific, the truth is closer to the announced date, but none of them should be taken literally.

Sources familiar with Vilja's work confirmed that he was a good manager and engineer who helped get the BE-4 rocket engine program back on track. As Ars reported last August, before Vilja's arrival, the numerous challenges faced by the engineers and technicians working to build and test BE-4 development engines included being "hardware poor."

During his tenure, Vilja hired Linda Cova to serve as his deputy. She will now lead, at least on an interim basis, the Engines team at Blue Origin. Cova came to the company in 2021 after working on various propulsion programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne for 35 years. Among her duties, she led the development of the AR1 engine, which lost out to the BE-4 engine in a competition held by United Launch Alliance for its new Vulcan rocket.

I won't bore you with a dissertation on the promised engine delivery dates.  I'll side with Michel van Baal here and say the chances Vulcan will fly in late 2022 strike me as "slim and none" but that's only based on their track record of not making promised deliveries.  The current guesstimated dates are first two engines are shipped to acceptance testing in May, two more in "reasonably short order" (I love that precision), and the first two flight engines to ULA in "June or July."  According to van Baal, that should mean August or September.

ULA really needs those engines to fly their Vulcan; not using them would probably mean massive redesign of the system.  The same issues with Roscosmos that are affecting everyone else should be dumping missions in ULA's laps, too.  The US prohibits the Russian-made engines that Atlas V flew on, limiting the life of that booster and eliminating the ability to take on an urgent task like OneWeb's.  The US military is eager to move its missions to vehicles made in the United States.  At present, the only game in town that the US Space Force has for medium- and heavy-lift is the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets built by SpaceX, with their American-made Merlin engines.




  1. And Elon wins again. Thank heavens for him, or we'd be stuck. Give him NASA's manned spaceflight budget and . . . wow.

  2. I wonder why Aerojet has sat on its collective arse for so long, just making the same-old same-old and with little to no real research since they made the RS25/SSMEs out of the Saturn's J2 engines. I mean, that's it. Whooptie doo. Making $46million reusable engines that are not going to be reused.

    Where's the innovation? Where's legacy-aerospace's replacements for the BE4 that's been delayed almost as much as the JWST but without the actual workingness of the JWST?

    1. But they're not $46 million. The disposable version that SLS uses is going to cost $146 million each. That's one reason why each flight is going to cost $4.1 billion, not including everything spent on development so far.

      If they're any good as manufacturing company, their cost has gone down not up. Why innovate when the gubmint is willing to drive dump trucks full of cash up to your building and just keep dumping money on you?

    2. Ah, forgot the $100million per engine that goes into various congresscritters' pockets.

      I remember when A/R was an innovative company thinking outside the box and, you know, innovating. Just realized that makes me... old. Dangit.