Reports: ULA to Partner With Blue Origin for LOX-Methane Engine

At Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, the BE-3 engine demonstrated a full simulated suborbital mission profile, igniting, throttling, and restarting on command. (Credit: NASA)
At Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, the BE-3 engine demonstrated a full simulated suborbital mission profile, igniting, throttling, and restarting on command. (Credit: NASA)

Media reports indicate that United Launch Alliance (ULA) has decided to partner with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin company to produce a liquid-oxygen/methane engine to power the first stage of the Atlas V booster. An announcement is expected on Wednesday.

[Update: ULA and Blue Origin will have a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday at 1 p.m.]

In June, ULA announced it had signed multiple study contracts with American rocket manufacturers for a replacement for the Russian-supplied RD-180 engine. The company said it planned to make a decision by the fourth quarter of this year.

Replacing the RD-180 engine has become a priority as relations have deteriorated between the United States and Russia over the Ukraine conflict. ULA wants whatever engine it selects to be ready to fly no later than 2019.

Space News reports that during a recent gathering of government and industry officials to discuss development of a domestic replacement, Blue Origin had made a very specific recommendation about the type of engine to develop:

Representatives from Blue Origin, the Kent, Washington, firm bankrolled by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, said the Air Force also should consider a liquid-oxygen/methane engine. Brooke Crawford, a spokeswoman for Blue Origin, declined to comment.

Blue Origin is not the only company working on a LOX/methane engine. Rival SpaceX is developing its Raptor engine for use in the company’s super-heavy booster designed to send humans to Mars.

  • Steven Hunt

    Something tells me that after you change the engines and switch to Methane, it’s not going to be an Atlas V anymore. That goes beyond even a v1.1 change.

  • Nathan Owens

    Not to mention the launch infrastructure changes that would be required.

    In then end, I think this is a case of the management at ULA looking over the horizon at SpaceX and saying to themselves, “We need to get some of that, too.” They are going to find out, however, that this really is rocket science and you really can’t just buy what you think you want from some whiz-bang wannabe company like Blue Origin.

  • windbourne

    ah. There we go.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    We’ll take any kind of progress. We need American-made, state-of-the-art engines ASAP.

  • Linsey Young

    I think it would warrant Atlas 6 – basically a new rocket based on the Atlas 5.

  • Vladislaw

    ULA is a joint venture, it wasn’t a merger, as such management does what the owners want .. Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

  • Nathan Owens

    No argument there. B & LM are still fooling themselves. Neither of these companies are very innovative. Their main motivation is to keep others out of the market. It keeps their share prices high. The management at both companies will sacrifice innovation for a good quarterly earnings report every time.

  • TimR

    Suddenly aerospace is interested in Methane-LOX engines. SpaceX is not the first concept but they are spearheading now.

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery … well, for a corporation such as Boeing, long a part of the Military Industrial Complex (which NASA feeds off of), it will copy, steal, beg and arm twist (if not extort) to win.

    It will still take Boeing & Blue a good four years or more to replace RD-180 no matter how cool and original they claim their Methane-LOX is. And with the Boeing named involved, the cost of development will be high — let’s say 61% higher like what happened today.

  • Michael J. Listner

    ULA is a joint-venture of two publicly held companies, hence management does what the shareholders want.

  • Vladislaw

    So shareholders are going to decide on whether they pursue lox methane or lox hydro? Shareholders are going to set the prices? Most times anytime shareholders want to exercise authority it done through expensive proxy battles which is why they are rare. They certainly do not micro manage with daily decision making.