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Report: Blue Origin Wins Engine Contract for ULA’s Vulcan Booster

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 27, 2018
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BE-4 staged combustion testing (Credit: Blue Origin)

The Wall Street Journal reports that Blue Origin has won a contract from United Launch Alliance to supply BE-4 engines for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan launch vehicle. An announcement is expected today.

The decision would be a defeat for Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has been developing the AR1 engine.

The long-term, potentially multibillion-dollar agreement could provide a boost to Blue Origin’s eventual goal of becoming a major military launch provider itself. The company plans to use the same engines to power its own heavy-lift launcher, called New Glenn, which is currently under development.

Competition in the satellite-launch business is heating up. The Air Force is considering how to divvy up hundreds of millions of federal dollars to develop a fleet of lower-cost, more versatile rockets. Blue Origin, United Launch, Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s Innovation Systems unit, formerly known as Orbital ATK, are all in the running. The Air Force is preparing to shortly announce the first-stage winners….

Negotiations between United Launch and Blue Origin dragged on for months, with both sides bargaining hard over price, delivery schedules and production reliability. Other hurdles, according to two people familiar with the details, included United Launch’s concerns about relying on a prospective rival for its most important engine supply. It couldn’t be learned what provisions were hammered out.

Blue Origin beat out Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc., which had sought to sell its AR1 engine as the primary propulsion system for the Vulcan. A spokesman for Aerojet, which previously was picked to provide smaller, upper-stage engines for the ULA rocket, said “we are committed” to the AR1 engine and “will have a test-ready engine in 2019.” The spokesman also said that regardless of the decision, Aerojet’s “liquid engine business is thriving,” and the AR1 remains an option for possible smaller launch vehicles on the drawing board.

3 responses to “Report: Blue Origin Wins Engine Contract for ULA’s Vulcan Booster”

  1. duheagle says:

    Since the dropping of the original shoe with their joint announcement of the BE-4 development deal four years ago, it has been a matter mainly of when, not whether, this second ULA-Blue shoe would drop. So now we know that Tory Bruno’s inveterate answer of “soon” to questions anent the Vulcan engine choice has been instantiated as Sept. 27, 2018. Good. More clarity is always preferable to less.

    For AJR, this will be a defining moment. To remain a player in the large engine market, AJR will now have to fully embrace being an actual business and not a sheltered workshop. That means either exerting itself to simultaneously take a lot of costs out of the nascent AR-1 and push it hard to the problematical base of remaining potential purchasers, or to fold its tent and resign itself to building nothing in future larger than the RL-10. (I know, I know, AJR has a contract to make RS-25E’e for SLS. Anyone who thinks that is going to insure AJR’s future as a large engine builder might be interested in some property I’ve recently acquired in the barrier islands of North Carolina.) Right now, I’d say the odds are probably at least 10:1 in favor of capitulation, retrenchment and AR-1 cancellation.

    Absent ULA, the only likely near-term taker for AR-1 might be NGIS for the Antares – assuming Antares itself has any future within NGIS beyond completion of its manifest of CRS missions to ISS. But AR-1 will have to be at least moderately price-competitive with the incumbent RS-181 to have any such shot. Even with RD-181’s, Antares is rumored to be too pricey to attract non-NASA commercial customers. NGIS is likely to stick with Energomash unless the Congress – or the Russians – decide to ban NGIS’s further use of the RD-181. AJR is alleged to have a fair number of Congresscritters in its pocket. A new push for Russian engine sanctions would tend to substantiate this. But NGIS has more than a few pet Congresscritters of its own so even this gambit would be pretty much a Hail Mary play.

    Any other potential client for AR-1 seems unlikely. A new smallsat launcher could definitely be built around the AR-1, but probably not at a price point competitive with the many other such offerings about to come on-line over the next two years or so. These are all NewSpace initiatives and AJR has pretty much zero experience dealing with NewSpace. There is the added complication that there are additional NewSpace companies already lining up to try to be commodity providers of booster and upper stage engines to other NewSpace smallsat vehicle builders.

    AJR seems, to me, very likely to be in for an extended stretch of hard times.

  2. Jeff Smith says:

    Congrats to Blue and the Vulcan team. Good luck!

  3. Robert G. Oler says:

    Blue is well on the way to success

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