A report published by the Government Accountability Office has revealed that the development of the Blue Origin BE-4 engine is experiencing “technical challenges.”
United Launch Alliance announced that it selected the BE-4 engine to power its Vulcan rocket on September 27, 2018. The first stage of the next-generation rocket will be powered by two BE-4 methalox engines.
ULA’s selection of the Blue Origin engine was the result of new legislation that bans the Department of Defense from procuring launch services aboard rockets powered by Russian RD-180 engines. This meant that ULA had to look closer to home for an engine for Vulcan or lose out on the chance to bid for lucrative national security missions.
In July 2020, the first BE-4 rocket engine was delivered to the launch provider. Described as a development pathfinder by ULA CEO Tory Bruno, the engine was seen as the prelude to the imminent delivery of the first flight-ready BE-4 rocket engines. However, close to a year later and there are no flight-ready engines in sight.
Last month, ULA announced that although it had been on track for a late 2021 maiden flight of Vulcan, customer payload delays had pushed the launch to 2022. This seemed somewhat suspicious as no specific customer was identified and maiden flights are often launched with dummy payloads.
With few updates regarding the progress of the BE-4 engine’s development, many began to speculate problems with the development of the engine were behind the delayed debut of Vulcan. The June 8 GAO report appears to support this assertion.
Although the report does not identify the engine directly, it states that technical challenges facing the development of Vulcan’s engines have endangered the timely launch of national security missions.
“A U.S. produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle is experiencing technical challenges related to the igniter and booster capabilities required and may not be qualified in time to support first launches beginning in 2021.”
If the Vulcan is not ready for launch by 2022, ULA will be forced to shift national security missions assigned to the next generation launcher. In addition to taking a financial loss as a result of the shift, this would also result in delays to the launch of commercial payloads assigned to a dwindling number of remaining Atlas V vehicles.