Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin nears certification for its BE-4 engine

The much-delayed engine could help reduce the U.S.'s reliance on Russian models.
Chris Young
Blue Origin's BE-4 engine
Blue Origin's BE-4 engine

Blue Origin / YouTube 

Blue Origin's much-delayed BE-4 engine may be close to hitting the launch pad.

As Bloomberg points out in a report, the U.S. Space Force recently announced in a statement that “Vulcan launch system development activities continue to make progress” towards a first test launch in December.

That's because “ULA and Blue Origin have completed originally planned BE-4 development testing, and have successfully demonstrated full engine performance.”

Blue Origin could help reduce U.S.'s reliance on Russian engines

Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, has been working on the BE-4 engine for years. The new update means the company will soon be able to provide heavy payload services to the Pentagon, ending its reliance on a Russian engine model.

Blue Origin stated in 2014 that the BE-4 engine would be ready to launch the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Vulcan rocket by 2017. ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, both of which are top Pentagon contractors. As recently as June, however, the Government Accountability Office cited "continued technical challenges in developing a US-produced rocket engine."

ULA has so far used the Russian-made RD-180 engine to launch its Atlas V heavy rocket approximately 80 times since 2000. The U.S. Space Force's latest statement is a cause for optimism then, as Blue Origin's BE-4 engine looks set to end this reliance.

The stage was set for the BE-4 in 2014, when Congress demanded a replacement for the Russian engines after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February this year increased the urgency of that demand.

The latest update from the U.S. Space Force also serves as good news for Blue Origin a few days after one of its missions was forced to abort after launch on September 12. That mission was launched on its suborbital New Shepard rocket, which is not powered by a BE-4 engine.

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Vulcan nears flight certification

In its statement, ULA said the Vulcan program "is now focused on completing BE-4 qualification testing and flight engine deliveries. [Its] other elements are progressing through final qualification testing to support initial launch capability."

Before it can gain flight certification, ULA must complete two successful flight tests. Then, it will be greenlit to launch sensitive U.S. military and intelligence cargo.

The U.S. Space Force said it expects to complete initial certification of the Vulcan rocket with the BE-4 engine by March 2023. However, final certification for the "largest and most stressing" national security missions isn't expected until 2025.

Elon Musk's SpaceX, meanwhile, was recently awarded final certifications to fly its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the same types of sensitive classified missions ULA aims to launch with Vulcan. SpaceX will use its Falcon Heavy rocket with reusable boosters, while Vulcan will be able to jettison its BE-4 engines after launch for reuse.

Frank Calvelli, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for space systems, said in a statement that ULA and Blue Origin “have done a lot to reduce risk, but a lot of work and testing remains to meet this December’s launch.”

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