There is a new sort of space race brewing. One between privately funded space technology companies and traditional government-funded bodies. The latest battle saw two different but very powerful engines undergo testing. Last week NASA tested its RS-25 rocket engine E2063, which is destined to be a part of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. And on Wednesday Blue Origin completed historic testing of its Blue Engine 4 (BE-4) rocket engine.
The BE-4 which is powered by liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants is touted as being the most powerful American-built rocket engine in decades. Blue Origin, a privately funded space aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company has big plans for the rocket intending to use it on its New Glenn heavy-lift rocket. But the powerful engine could be used first to boost United Launch Alliance's flagship rocket, Vulcan.
The engine went through its first hot-fire test at the Blue Origin testing ground in West Texas on October 18th. The engine was tested at 50% of its power for three seconds. The Blue Engine is fully reusable and is the largest engine developed in the US almost entirely with private funds. The B4 is more powerful than the Space Shuttle main engine and SpaceX Raptor engine. Once completed, the B4 may become the go-to engine for all heavy launched regardless of private or government funded rockets.
Blue Origin was started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and is determined to make space travel accessible for private citizens. The company's motto is "Gradatim Ferociter", Latin for "Step by Step, Ferociously". Under this guide they are following an incremental approach to reach their goal, with each milestone reached being a stepping stone to the next. The company's first milestone was the completion of the rocket New Shepard. New Shepard is a suborbital rocket designed to fly to the edge of space and return to earth. The rocket booster was the first to return from space and successfully complete a vertical landing.
The next step for Blue Origin and the reason for the massive BE-4 is the development of the New Glenn rocket. New Glenn is a heavy lift rocket designed to carry payloads and crew to low Earth Orbit. The massive rocket will operate in a two and three-stage variant and seven powerful BE-4 engines power both the first and second stages of its flight. Blue Origin has indicated it would like to fly New Glenn for the first time sometime in 2020.
But before the 2020 New Glenn flight, the BE-4 may be used on another rocket. United Launch Alliance (ULA) is creating a new rocket called Vulcan and may partner with Blue Origin for its power. ULA had previously been using Russian-made engines to power its rockets but is energetically seeking an American made alternative to maintain its reputation with US national security agencies who employ ULA to launch their satellites. ULA is under pressure to come up with a solution to its rocket problem if it wants to continue to hold the contract to launch secret U.S security satellites and rumors.abound that the government is pressuring ULA to collaborate with more experienced engine maker Aerojet. With so many players in the field, this new space race will be a tough one to call.