Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Click the arrow to watch the Boeing/Blue Origin event at the National Press Club. Video source: Blue Origin YouTube channel.

A year ago in September, Blue Origin filed a complaint to protest the lease award of Kennedy Space Center's Pad 39A.

Many observers surmised that Blue Origin might have a tacit agreement with United Launch Alliance, a Boeing/Lockheed Martin partnership whose legal government launch monopoly is threatened by SpaceX. Blue Origin had no foreseeable need for Pad 39A in the near future, but denying SpaceX access to the pad would be throwing sand in their mutual competitor's metaphorical gear box.

Members of Congress who have received campaign contributions from Boeing or Lockheed Martin sent NASA letters protesting the SpaceX award.

Three months later, the Government Accountability Office rejected the complaint, and in April 2014 NASA and SpaceX formally signed at 20-year lease for Pad 39A.

If there was no quid pro quo between Blue Origin and ULA a year ago, their courtship became formal today.

At a media event in Washington, D.C. the companies announced a partnership to jointly produce a new engine that could eventually replace the Russian RD-180 engine currently used on the ULA Atlas V.

According to the ULA press release:

The ULA/Blue Origin agreement allows for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by ULA and Blue Origin for both companies’ next generation launch systems.

The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-lbf of thrust at sea level. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1,100,000-lbf thrust at liftoff. ULA is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions. Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for three years and testing of BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in West Texas. Blue Origin recently commissioned a new large test facility for the BE-4 to support full engine testing.

Click here for the ULA BE-4 fact sheet.

Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos with a scale model of the BE-4 engine today at the National Press Club. Image source:

Both ULA CEO Tory Bruno and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos stressed that the BE-4 is not a “one for one” replacement for the RD-180, but global events this year have spurred the military and ULA to consider replacing the Russian engine.

After the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions on Russia earlier this year in response to events in Ukraine, Defense Minister Dmitri Rogozin threatened to end RD-180 shipments to ULA.

I've written several times that I viewed Rogozin's threats as hollow, because Energomash has no other market for the RD-180. That was confirmed yesterday by The Moscow Times:

Russia is not planning to halt shipments of its RD-180 and NK-33 rocket engines to U.S. aerospace firms in response to the latest round of Western sanctions, the deputy chairman of the government's Military-Industrial Commission said Tuesday.

“We do not have such plans. It is not profitable for us. We produce and deliver the [engines], they buy them,” Oleg Bochkarev said in comments carried by the TASS news agency ...

“Russia is rather peacefully responding to the sanctions,” Bochkarev said. “We have no plans to break relationships with anyone, they are trying to break relations with us.”

This formal partnership between an OldSpace company and a NewSpace company will be an interesting test to see if one culture is compatible with another.

ULA was created in 2006 to assure the government had a launch capability. It was not created to innovate; that was the purpose of the commercial cargo and crew program.

Blue Origin participated in earlier rounds of the commercial crew competition, and has continued with an unfunded Space Act agreement.

But ULA is not in the habit of developing new technology unless compensated by the federal government, so it will be interesting to see if the new partnership seeks a military contract backed by their Congressional benefactors to defray any investment costs.

It also appears to be an implicit admission that separately neither company can compete with SpaceX. The BE-4's LOX/LNG propellant appears to be an attempt to compete with the SpaceX Raptor engine under development that would use LOX and methane.

Today's event is further evidence that we are witnessing the birth of a “robust space industry” foreseen by the Aldridge Commission in June 2004 when it urged the Bush administration to inject competition through an awards program that would create innovation and bring down launch costs.

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