Tuesday, September 13, 2022

It's Almost Fall - Did Blue Origin Ship BE-4s "this summer?"

Yeah, that's a rhetorical question; no they haven't.  The last promised delivery I have records for was "this summer," implying they have about a week to do it.  They might deliver one, they certainly won't deliver two. 

ULA's Tory Bruno has said that the two flight certified engines will be delivered this summer and the first Vulcan launch will be before the end of the year...

According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica and his Blue Origin sources, Blue sent the first of two engines to their Texas testing facility to undergo acceptance testing six weeks ago.  The second engine was shipped in mid-August.  The tests were expected to take about four weeks each to complete.  The first engine was rejected as testing began and sent back to the factory.  The second is still undergoing testing.  

Sources told Ars that the first engine was put onto the test stand in Texas early in August, but almost as soon as work began to hot-fire the powerful engine, an issue was discovered with the engine build. This necessitated a shipment back to Blue Origin's factory in mid-August, as the company's test stands in Texas do not allow for more than minor work.

ULA's director of external communications, Jessica Rye, said the flight engine presently in Washington is expected to leave for Texas "shortly." She confirmed that the other flight engine is undergoing "final acceptance testing" in Texas before shipment to Alabama.

"We are very pleased with where we are from a technical standpoint with the new BE-4 engines, and its great performance," Rye said.

That's Voice of Perpetual Optimism that anyone with the title, "Director of External Communications" is required to project.  The situation doesn't sound that great to me.  If I were Tory Bruno, I'd be sweating that the first engine - the Incredibly, Vitally Important First Engine - failed acceptance test as soon as it was put on the test stand. 

Look, ULA said it was going to press to fly the Vulcan before the end of this year.  I'm not 100% sure, but I think Christmas decorations are up in some stores now, and I'm starting to get "holiday gift" emails already.  The end of the year is rapidly approaching and Vulcan doesn't even have one engine.  It seems that they'll probably get one fully tested flight engine this month, but they probably won't receive the other one before mid-October, assuming they can get it to pass a clean set of tests in Texas.   

I don't see how they could get the vehicle finished, everything tested, moved to Cape Canaveral SFS from its current factory in Alabama, retested and verified after that, and then launched before the end of the year; 2-1/2 months away.  Then there's the payload itself.

The engines are not the only factor behind a potential delay for Vulcan. The customer for the rocket, Astrobotic, has not completed final assembly of its Peregrine spacecraft that is intended to land scientific and commercial payloads on the Moon.

"Peregrine is currently undergoing final integration at Astrobotic’s headquarters in Pittsburgh and will be ready for launch aboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur," said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO, in a statement to Ars. "Our nimble team has already integrated all 24 payloads to Peregrine’s decks and successfully tested communications in July with NASA’s Deep Space Network."

For a variety of reasons, this is a big deal for United Launch Alliance.  First and foremost, they don't have a launch vehicle in the payload class as this.  Their Atlas V and Delta IV platforms are at end of life.  Plus their most important customer is leaning on them because of all this. 

In August 2020, as part of its National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract, the US Air Force selected ULA to provide 60 percent of its national security launch needs during the five-year period from 2023 through 2027. SpaceX was the other provider chosen, receiving the other 40 percent of the launches. At the time of the contract award, Vulcan was projected to start flying in 2021. However, because of Vulcan delays, ULA has already had to move one military mission, USSF-51, to an Atlas V rocket. As ULA has sold all of its remaining Atlas V rockets, it urgently needs to deliver Vulcan for its most important customer, the US military, to conduct dozens of launches during the next five years.

ULA is in dire straits and Blue Origin just had its income shut off by the abort of its space tourist vehicle's test flight while the post-incident investigation completes.  That might change the willingness of some participants to take that ride, although that's harder to predict.   

Photograph of BE-4 "flight engine no. 2" on Blue Origin's test stand in Texas, as shared on Twitter by ULA chief executive Tory Bruno on August 26, 2022.

I think Eric Berger had a clever way to end his article, so I'll give him the last words. 

If these launch targets appear challenging for ULA, perhaps the company can take heart from an exchange between Spock and Captain Kirk during a 1967 episode of Star Trek.

"Captain, you almost make me believe in luck," the Vulcan said.

To which Captain Kirk replied, "Why, Mr. Spock, you almost make me believe in miracles."


  1. "I'm shocked, shocked to not see BE-4s in this establishment..."

    In reality, I'd be shocked to actually see flight ready BE-4s at ULA before the end of the year and even more shocked if they actually get mounted and Vulcan gets stacked.

    As to the blooie launch, how many Merlins have launched, and more importantly, reflown without blowing up? And how many BE-3s have launched and reflown? I'm sure the difference is a very logarithmic graph.

  2. The juxtaposition of this with the SpaceX record post below is delicious.

  3. I feel their pain. I just took delivery of an engine from a supplier that promised the rebuild in 6-8 weeks....starting in April.