New space company Blue Origin has spent the better part of this decade developing a powerful rocket engine for use in its orbital rocket, New Glenn, and potentially other US-based launchers. This engine, the liquid natural gas-powered BE-4, has been closely watched both within the aerospace industry and in military space because it uses innovative new technology, has largely been developed with private funding, and is fully reusable.
However, while there was great promise with the new engine, it still had to perform. And so the aerospace community has been watching development of the engine to see if it could pass a key hurdle—a hot-fire test. After months of waiting, that's what finally happened on Wednesday at the company's facility in West Texas when the BE-4 engine fired at 50-percent power for three seconds.
— Blue Origin (@blueorigin) October 19, 2017
This demonstration sends a clear signal that there is a new player in the industry preparing to compete both for national security and commercial launches. Some have derided Blue Origin for its original focus on New Shepard, a suborbital vehicle that the company plans to use for space tourism trips in a year or two. However, the brawny BE-4 engine supports the idea that Blue Origin is gearing up for orbital and deep space missions, too.
The company's success is all the more significant because it was largely funded by Jeff Bezos, without direct cost to taxpayers. Up until a few years ago, every US-based rocket engine was funded almost entirely through government contracts, such as the Saturn V's F-1 and the space shuttle's main engines. SpaceX changed the model by building its Merlin rocket engine through a fixed-price contract to fulfill its launch commitments for NASA, but that engine was still built largely with taxpayer money.
SpaceX has invested significant amounts of its own funds into its new Raptor engine, which has a sea-level thrust of 380,000 pounds. But this engine has yet to undergo full-scale testing. Meanwhile, Blue Origin's BE-4 engine is more powerful, at 550,000 pounds of thrust—it is in fact the most powerful US rocket engine developed since Rocketdyne built the RS-68 engine two decades ago.
The problem with the RS-68 engine, which powers the Delta IV line of rockets, is that it costs too much. United Launch Alliance, which flies the Delta IV fleet, is seeking to stop flying the launch vehicles because they are so expensive to build. However, the US military has pushed back against this, because it doesn't want to be solely reliant on the Atlas V rocket (and its Russian-made RD-180 engine) to reach some strategic orbits.
Therefore, in recent years, United Launch Alliance has begun developing a new rocket to replace both the Delta and (eventually) the Russian-reliant Atlas vehicle. For the new rocket, dubbed Vulcan, United Launch Alliance has made its preference for Blue Origin's BE-4 engine clear. As a second option, the company is also considering the AR1 engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has historically built most US engines.
Aerojet has been heavily lobbying Congress to pressure United Launch Alliance to select the AR1 engine, which has already received more than $200 million in federal funding. One of the Aerojet's principal arguments has been that as a relatively new company Blue Origin is incapable of building such a large, complex engine. In March, several Congressmen wrote to the Air Force to echo these concerns, saying Blue Origin's engine was "unproven at the required size and power." Then, in May, Blue Origin suffered a setback when an engine powerpack exploded on its West Texas test stand.
Wednesday's successful test demonstrates that Blue Origin not only recovered from that accident but has taken the additional step of assembling and hot-fire testing a full engine. In addition, such a test—the first of many to prove out an engine—backs up the claims of Blue Origin that it is significantly ahead of Aerojet in developing a modern rocket engine.
Successful development of the BE-4 engine also provides a jolt to the commercial space industry, which not only seeks to provide products and services in return for government contracts, but to marry private investment with limited government funding to provide important new capabilities.
In this case, the BE-4 engine is the cornerstone of Blue Origin's large orbital rocket, New Glenn, which could fly as early as 2020. Powered by seven engines, this massive 82-meter-tall rocket will have the capacity to lift 45 tons to low Earth orbit and an impressive 13 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. It will also be reusable—up to 100 times—according to Bezos. Blue Origin is attempting to position the New Glenn rocket as a centerpiece of a human return to the Moon.
"As Joe Biden would say, this is a BFD for the space industry," said Phil Larson, an expert in commercial space and assistant dean for strategy, planning, and communications at the University of Colorado's College of Engineering and Applied Science. "It goes to show we're accelerating into the moment where commercial space is driving our national space infrastructure."