GAO: Blue Origin BE-4 Engine Technical Issues Threaten ULA’s Vulcan Booster Schedule

BE-4 engine firing (Credit: Blue Origin)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Technical issues related to related to “the igniter and booster capabilities” with Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine could delay the maiden flight of United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) new Vulcan Centaur booster scheduled for late this year, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“A joint program office and ULA team is tracking these challenges, and NSSL officials told us Vulcan remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021. However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas V—which uses engines manufactured in the Russian Federation—to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development,” according to GAO’s Weapons Systems Annual Assessment report.

ULA and SpaceX were awarded contracts last year to launch national security payloads for the 2022-27 period.

ULA’s Atlas V rockets are powered by Russian RD-180 boosters. The U.S. Congress has mandated that all national security payloads be launched on rockets powered by U.S.-built engines. The BE-4 engine will power Vulcan Centaur’s first stage and also be used in Blue Origin’s New Glenn booster.

Although ULA is phasing out its Delta IV Heavy booster, the company plans to continue launching Atlas V boosters using the RD-180 engines. The Pentagon’s prohibition does not apply to ULA’s launches for civilian agencies such as NASA or commercial payloads.

For example, ULA will continue to use Atlas V boosters to launch Boeing’s Starliner crew vehicle to the International Space Station. Amazon has also signed a contract for nine Atlas V launches for its Project Kuiper satellite broadband constellation.

GAO found that SpaceX is in good shape to launch defense payloads.

“SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles are certified to conduct national security launches. The Falcon Heavy is undergoing some modifications to fully meet launch requirements and is on track to support its first mission in May 2021,” the report said.

The estimated May launch date is out of date. Spaceflight Now’s launch schedule has Falcon Heavy flying the U.S. Space Force’s USSF 44 mission in October.

GAO’s assessment of the ULA and SpaceX programs is below.

Weapons Systems Annual Assessment
Government Accountability Office
June 2021

Credit: ULA & SpaceX

National Security Space Launch (NSSL)

The Space Force’s NSSL provides space lift support for national security and other government missions. Currently, NSSL procures launch services from United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), supporting U.S. policy, as stated in law, to undertake actions appropriate to ensure to the maximum extent practicable the U.S. has the capabilities necessary to launch and insert national security payloads into space when needed. We focused our review on NSSL’s investments in new launch systems from U.S. launch providers.

Current Status

In August 2020, the program told us it competitively awarded 5-year launch service contracts to ULA and SpaceX for approximately 34 launches beginning in 2022 and planned to continue through 2027.

NSSL faces technical challenges to meeting its goal of ending reliance on rocket engines manufactured in the Russian Federation by the end of 2021. The Carl Levin and Howard P. “Buck” McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015, as amended, prohibited, with certain exceptions, the award or renewal of a contract for the procurement of property or services for National Security Space launch activities under the NSSL—then-Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle—program if such contract carries out such activities using rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. A subsequent amendment to the statute provided an exception for contracts awarded through 2022 for such procurements that include the use of a total of 18 rocket engines designed or manufactured in the Russian Federation. 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. A joint program office and ULA team is tracking these challenges, and NSSL officials told us Vulcan remains on track to support first launches and certification in 2021. However, if ULA cannot complete engine qualification before the 2021 flight certification, the program might continue to rely on ULA’s Atlas V—which uses engines manufactured in the Russian Federation—to support ULA’s 2022 launches, despite a nearly $2.9 billion investment in new launch system development. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles are certified to conduct national security launches. The Falcon Heavy is undergoing some modifications to fully meet launch requirements and is on track to support its first mission in May 2021.

Program Office Comments

We provided a draft of this assessment to the program office for review and comment. The program office provided technical comments, which we incorporated. The program office stated that it has been extremely successful and efficient with unprecedented mission success and a $22 billion reduction to life-cycle costs, representing a 28 percent unit cost decrease since 2013. It added that the Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement contract provides assured access manifest flexibility, and incorporates industry innovation.