Blue Origin/ULA Partnership FAQs


Q. What exactly does this partnership entail?

A. ULA and Blue Origin have established a long-term partnership and teaming arrangement. The initial purpose is to jointly fund the development of an engine compatible with ULA’s future launch vehicle needs, as well as future Blue Origin space systems. Other joint projects are also being considered.

Q. Does the BE-4 replace the RD-180 engine that is imported through RD AMROSS?

The BE-4 is not a direct replacement for the RD-180 that powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket, however two BE-4s are expected to provide the engine thrust for the next generation ULA vehicles. The details related to ULA’s next generation vehicles – which will maintain the key heritage components of ULA’s Atlas and Delta rockets that provide world class mission assurance and reliability – will be announced at a later date.

Q. Who will be able to use the rocket engine? Will you sell it to competitors or companies overseas?

A. We anticipate the BE-4 to be a huge success for both ULA and Blue Origin. After development and production, Blue will make the engine commercially available to other companies.

Q. How much will the new engine cost to build?

A. The cost is proprietary and we are not able to publicly disclose.

Q. Will this increase costs to the government or any new customers?

A. No, in fact, the production of this new engine will cut costs for our customers.

Q. How did this new partnership come about?

A. ULA and Blue Origin have had a long-term relationship. We first began to work together in the mid-2000s and then more formally as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) in 2009.

Q. What experience does Blue Origin have in building rocket engines?

A. Blue is focused on developing vehicles and technologies to lower the cost and increase the safety of spaceflight. The BE-4 is the fourth and largest engine for Blue. The BE-3 hydrogen engine is fully developed and will power Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital vehicle.

Q. How many jobs will it create and in what state/s?

A. Blue Origin currently has more than 350 employees at its facilities in Kent, Washington and its testing site in West Texas, while ULA has more than 3,500 employees in Colorado, Alabama, Florida, California and Texas. At this time, the location of the new operation has not yet been determined and we will be looking at a variety of states to perform the manufacturing activities.

Q. Does this have any impact on the recent $11 billion Block Buy by the U.S. Air Force for launch capabilities?

A. This teaming arrangement will not have any impact on the current block buy as it will support future vehicles and contracts, not the existing contract. However, in the future, we anticipate that this new domestic engine will be able to further reduce costs while continuing to provide the most affordable and reliable launch services to our customers.

  • Stuart

    Will the engine be reusable… really reusable?

  • Sam Moore

    There’s no explicit statement it is, but BO’s planning an RLV in the near future, and this is the logical engine for it.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Sounds as though the engine will be reusable. The problem is, how to get it back safely.

  • HyperJ

    Yep, pretty much.

    BO will make a reusable launcher with the BE-4.
    ULA will make an expendable Atlas/Delta derivative using the BE-4.

  • Tonya

    ULA did once have a proposal to recover the RD-180 engine from the Atlas V. The engine block would be separated from the 1st stage, descend by parachute and then be captured midair by skyhook.

    For national security payloads (both heavy and very high value), I could imagine them proposing something like that again as a halfway solution. I could even imagine a return to the original Atlas configuration of three engines with two ejected.

    There seems to be a lot of discussion about how to land the stage, but there’s more than one way to approach reusability and which components are actually recovered.

  • Tonya

    Having both reusable and expendable vehicles use the same engine can also improve the overall economics of both. The (low frequency) expendable vehicle would fly with the used engines from the (high frequency) reusable one.

    That reasoning was used with the original Shuttle-C proposal

  • Robert Gishubl

    Not sure if DoD would be happy with near time expired engines for national security payloads. Why not just fly on a re-usable rocket. Maybe like SpaceX re-usable up to X payload and between X and Y it is expendable at a higher price.
    If ULA have a new engine and tank-age is that a new rocket that needs to be qualified at ULA cost or will it be ok because it is a ULA rocket?

  • Tonya

    In time we’ll probably see that it is SpaceX that use exactly this model of handing down engines. The engines flown on expendable missions will be those that have flown first on reusable flight.

    Would the DoD object to that for SpaceX flights? Possibly for certain payloads, they’re a conservative organisation and if they want to pay more for new engines that’s their choice.

    If an engine is reusable for dozens of flights, there’s no reason to consider it expired. It’s simply an economic option to have a large expendable vehicle and a medium sized reusable vehicle share components, and hand down parts. The economics improves when the flight rate of the reusable vehicle is a high multiple of the larger.

    Using the shuttle-C analogy, would that have been cheaper if the proposal was for a massive reusable vehicle with 70+mt payload? Not at the proposed flight rate, and the same is probably true of whatever vehicle ULA are proposing for this engine.

    There were of course many shuttle-C variations, including some that recovered the engine module. That is something else ULA could propose as I’ve written elsewhere. There are many potential options.

  • TimR

    This partnership came out of a competition stemming from a ULA solicitation seeking a replacement for RD-180.

    It might be designed to be reusable but creating a reuseable rocket to return it safely to Earth is a bigger challenge. Four years, probably more like 5, to flight qualify this BE-4 and then add 5 years or more for a reuseable rocket such as SpaceX is testing now; no chance an Atlas vehicle will be reuseable any time soon.

    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Surely, SpaceX’s were not the only prop engineers thinking about Methane (or LNG) but SpaceX is the one company that has made known it is building a Methane/LOX engine and its on test stands now.