Report: Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine will win United Launch Alliance’s multibillion-dollar backing

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine went on display at a Colorado space conference in April. (Blue Origin Photo)

After years of development and months of uncertainty, Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has won a high-stakes race to provide United Launch Alliance with its BE-4 rocket engine, The Wall Street Journal reported today.

The Journal attributed its report to unnamed sources familiar with the deal, and said a formal announcement would be made today. Neither Blue Origin nor ULA, which is a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, commented immediately on the Journal’s report.

Such an announcement would cap what United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno has said will be a multibillion-dollar partnership on the propulsion system for ULA’s next-generation, semi-reusable Vulcan rocket.

Using Blue Origin’s BE-4, a 550,000-pound-thrust engine that’s fueled by liquefied natural gas, would follow through on Congress’ requirement that ULA stop using Russian-made RD-180 engines.

Bezos has been covering the bulk of the development cost for the BE-4, which is also destined to be used on Blue Origin’s reusable, orbital-class New Glenn rocket. This month, Bezos said he’d be spending “just over a billion dollars” on the New Glenn program the next year.

New Glenn could eventually loom as a competitor for the Vulcan. That scenario was reportedly one of the concerns that emerged during months of negotiations that also focused on price and technical capabilities.

ULA’s “Plan B” was to turn to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s kerosene-fueled AR1 engine, but that engine was thought to be far behind the BE-4 on its development timeline. In recent weeks it became increasingly clear that Blue Origin held the edge. Aerojet’s RL10 engine would be used on the Vulcan’s Centaur upper stage.

The BE-4 is currently built at Blue Origin’s headquarters in Kent, Wash., and for more than a year the engines have been undergoing testing at Blue Origin’s facilities in West Texas. The current schedule calls for their use on New Glenn and ULA Vulcan flights in 2020, but that schedule could slip.

Deals already have been struck for New Glenn satellite launches in the 2020s.

Blue Origin has said that winning ULA’s nod would open the way for the development of a $200 million engine factory in Huntsville, Ala.

The company has moved into a $200 million New Glenn rocket manufacturing facility near Cape Canaveral, Fla., and aims to send up its New Glenn rockets from Launch Complex 36 nearby.

Blue Origin has a separate suborbital space program, known as New Shepard, and is currently conducting uncrewed flight tests of that spaceship in West Texas. There’s also a lunar lander program known as Blue Moon that could eventually win NASA’s support for missions in the 2020s.

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