Billionaire Startup Beats Out Industry Stalwart for ULA Engine Contract

United Launch Alliance has selected the Blue Origin BE-4 engine to power the first stage of their Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle.
A recent test of the BE-4 engine at Blue Origin’s West Texas Launch Facility | Image credit: Blue Origin

United Launch Alliance has selected the Blue Origin BE-4 engine to power their Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. The announcement comes at the expense of industry stalwart Aerojet Rocketdyne. Both Blue Origin’s BE-4 and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 had been in contention to power ULA’s next-generation launch vehicle.

“We are very glad to have our BE-4 engine selected by United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance is the premier launch service provider for national security missions, and we’re thrilled to be part of their team and that mission,” said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith. “We can’t thank Tory Bruno and the entire United Launch Alliance team enough for entrusting our engine to powering the Vulcan rocket’s first stage.”

Although the official announcement was only made on September 27, the result had been all but confirmed for several months. The AR1 is said to be several months, if not years behind the development of the BE-4. As a result, the Blue Origin BE-4 was the natural choice if ULA are to launch the first Vulcan Centaur by mid-2020.

The BE-4 engine is powered by liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas in a oxygen-rich staged combustion. According to Blue Origin, the engine will produce around 550,000 lbs. of thrust. The engine will power the Vulcan Centaur’s first stage along with up to strap-on solid-fuel boosters. The combination of the solid-fuel and liquid-fueled BE-4 will give the vehicle 3.8 million pounds of thrust at launch. This will allow ULA to place payloads of up to 78,000 lbs into low Earth orbit (LEO) and 35,000 lbs into geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).

Although the BE-4 engine is being developed to be reusable, all indications so far point to ULA utilising the engine in a disposable configuration to start with. However, in addition to the ULA Vulcan Centaur, the BE-4 is also set to power Blue Origin’s own New Glenn heavy-lift launch vehicle. In this vehicle, the engine will likely be reused for several flights reducing launch costs.

Andrew Parsonson is a space enthusiast and the founder of Rocket Rundown. He has worked as a journalist and blogger for various industries for over 5 years and has a passion for both fictional and real-life space travel. Currently, Andrew is the primary writer for Rocket Rundown as we look to expand our reach and credibility.