ULA Leaning Toward BE-4 Engine for Vulcan as Crucial Engine Tests Loom

BE-4 staged combustion testing (Credit: Blue Origin)

In what is likely a surprise to no one, United Launch Alliance’s CEO said this week the company is leaning toward selecting Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in the first stage of its new Vulcan rocket — providing upcoming engine tests go well.

That would leave rival Aerojet Rocketdyne and its AR1 engine without a booster to fly on.

In an interview during the 33rd Space Symposium here, Tory Bruno said that tests of the BE-4 engine, scheduled to begin “very soon” at Blue Origin’s test site in West Texas, are the last major hurdle the engine must clear before ULA decides to use it on Vulcan.

The Year Ahead in Space

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

It’s going to be busy year in space in 2017. Here’s a look at what we can expect over the next 12 months.

A New Direction for NASA?

NASA’s focus under the Obama Administration has been to try to commercialize Earth orbit while creating a foundation that would allow the space agency to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030’s.

Whether Mars will remain a priority under the incoming Trump Administration remains to be seen. There is a possibility Trump will refocus the space agency on lunar missions instead.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is currently viewed as a leading candidate for NASA administrator, has written two blog posts focused on the importance of exploring the moon and developing its resources. Of course, whether Bridenstine will get NASA’s top job is unclear at this time.


Trump, Musk, Bezos, Bruno & the Future of America’s Space Program

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

There’s been a lot of speculation since the election on  what president-elect Donald Trump will do with the nation’s civilian and military space programs.

Two Trump advisors laid out some goals before the election: more commercial partnerships, boosting defense spending, increasing hypersonics and slashing NASA Earth science. However, most details remain unclear.

A key question is whether Trump really cares about space all that much. That’s a little hard to discern given his comments during  the campaign.

When first questioned on the subject, he expressed a preference for fixing potholes in America’s crumbling streets over sending people to Mars. Trump has promised a large infrastructure repair program.

During a visit to Florida, he attacked the Obama Administration for allegedly wrecking NASA and the space program. During another appearance in the Sunshine State about a week later, Trump praised the space agency for how well it was performing.

So, NASA is either doing great, a disaster that needs to be made great again, or an obstacle to pothole repair. Assuming Trump actually cares, and he’s willing to spend some money on making NASA great again, what might he do? What major decisions does he face?

SMC, ULA Enter into CRADA to Certify Vulcan Launch Vehicle

Artist's conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)
Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)

LOS ANGELES (SMC PR) — The Space and Missile Systems Center signed a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA) with United Launch Alliance (ULA) as part of the company’s effort to certify its new Vulcan launch vehicle for National Security Space (NSS) missions. This cooperative, jointly-written agreement facilitates data exchanges and protects proprietary and export-controlled data. The CRADA will be in effect until all non-recurring design validation activities for Vulcan are complete.


Entrepreneurial Lingo Lesson: The Pivot

twist_chubby1_disrupt copy
First in an irregular series on entrepreneurial buzz words

Come on let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
ROI was really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s pivot again,
Pivotin’ time is here!

Heeee, and round and round til IPO we go!
Oh, baby, make those investors love us so!

Let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

There comes a time in the existence of many startups when there an urgent need to change direction. You set up the company to pursue a goal, but for one reason or several — a lack of a market, shortage of investment, regulatory hurdles, a flawed concept — you have to direct all that talent, technology and enthusiasm toward a new objective that will keep the company in operation.


XCOR Releases Statement About Layoffs

Lynx engine hot fire. (Credit: XCOR)
Lynx engine hot fire. (Credit: XCOR)


Midland, May 31, 2016

Following recent breakthroughs in the effort of developing safer, cost-effective, sustainable, reliable and instantly reusable rocket engines for XCOR’s Lynx and other launchers, XCOR Aerospace announced earlier today that it has decided to focus the majority of its resources on the final development of the revolutionary liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen (LH2) program. This innovative propulsion technology has applications to upper stage liquid hydrogen engines suitable for the Atlas V, Delta IV, and the planned NASA Space Launch System (SLS) and further underscores the partnership between XCOR and ULA, USA’s premier launch services provider that was announced March 9 this year.

“Based on the immediate engine opportunities presented to us, we decided we needed to fully focus on the LH2 program for the forthcoming period”, said Jay Gibson, President and CEO of XCOR Aerospace. .“Given that we remain a small-scale company, we are planning to place more emphasis on fine-tuning the hydrogen engine program to achieve an optimal closed loop system for cryogenic rocket engines. We are convinced that this effort will ensure that XCOR is better positioned to finish the Lynx Project in a more efficient, reliable and safer manner. Instantly Reusable Launch Vehicles will make the edge of space accessible for everyone and our efforts with ULA on the LH2 propulsion systems will do the same for deep space.”

XCOR will continue to keep working from both the Mojave and Midland locations.

Editor’s Note: XCOR just laid off about two dozen people. It is customary in these kinds of statements to acknowledge the cuts, express regret that they were required, and thank the departing employees for their service.

XCOR’s problem is — and has always been — funding. There wasn’t enough of it to keep the Lynx staff intact, which is why most of them were laid off.

There are enough people left with Lynx knowledge to restart the program at a future time. However, XCOR would need to raise money to do so, and then hire new engineers and get them up to speed on an unique vehicle. From that perspective, XCOR won’t really be in a better position as a result of this decision.



Senate Armed Services Committee Limits ULA Engines

John McCain
John McCain

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) approved the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday that limits United Launch Alliance (ULA) to purchasing nine Russian-made RD-180 engines for use in the first stage of the company’s Atlas V booster to launch national security payloads.

The move sets up a showdown with the House Armed Services Committee, which earlier put the number of engines ULA could purchase at 18. ULA and the U.S. Air Force support the higher number, saying the engines are needed to meet military launch needs.


House Armed Services Committee Wants AR-1 Engine in Atlas V

Artist's conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)
Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)

The House Armed Services Committee appears determined to require United Launch Alliance (ULA) to re-engineer its Atlas V booster with a new Aerojet Rocketdyne engine in its first stage even though the launch provider doesn’t really want the motor.


RUAG Will Manufacture Structures for the Vulcan Rocket

Artist's conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)
Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (RUAG Space PR) –.RUAG Space will supply carbon structures for United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) new Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. This was announced by both companies at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on Tuesday. An agreement to this effect was signed by U.S. launch manufacturer United Launch Alliance and RUAG, and is an expansion in the supplier partnership enabling significant future savings in composite structures.


United Launch Alliance Completes Preliminary Design Review for Next-Generation Vulcan Centaur Rocket

Artist's conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)
Artist’s conception of Vulcan rocket. (Credit; ULA)

CENTENNIAL, Colo., March 24, 2016 (ULA PR) – United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully completed the Preliminary Design Review (PDR) for the Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle with dual Blue Origin BE-4 engines. The PDR, a major milestone in development of the Vulcan launch vehicle, confirms that the design meets the requirements for the diverse set of missions it will support. The ULA team will build upon this milestone to refine and test key elements of the design while executing a busy manifest of 14 launches in 2016.


Bezos Opens Up Blue Origin Factory for First TIme

Blue_Origin_EmblemOn Wednesday, Jeff Bezos gave a tour of the Blue Origin factory in Kent, Wash., to a select group of 11 journalists. It was the first time the company had opened up its factory to the media.

Here are some of the key takeaways:

  • There will be a fourth test of the New Shepard suborbital rocket and capsule system soon;
  • Bezos said there will be an opportunity to witness a New Shepard flight later this year at the company’s test facility in Texas;
  • The New Shepard system flown in November was refurbished for a cost  “in the small tens of thousands of dollars” and re-launched in January;
  • Bezos says the company plans to rely the system until they lose it in an accident;
  • New Shepard will begin flying scientific payloads later this year;
  • The automated vehicle could begin flying test subjects in 2017, with space tourism flights to follow as soon as 2018;
  • An in-flight abort test is planned during which the New Shepard capsule will blast free from the launch vehicle at maximum dynamic pressure;
  • Six passengers will sit in recline seats, each facing a 3-foot tall large window to give them a view of space and Earth;
  • Passengers would be able to unstrap themselves to float around the capsule;
  • Bezos said the company will be thorough in testing New Shepard before placing anyone on board;
  • Blue Origin could eventually end up flying a small fleet of New Shepard vehicles dozens of times annually;
  • Bezos did not reveal pricing, but said thousands of people have registered interest in flying;
  • Blue Origin hopes to test its BE-4 engine by the end of this year;
  • The BE-4 engine will be used in United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, which is set to make its first flight in 2019;
  • Blue Origin also plans to use the BE-4 in its own launch vehicle, which is nicknamed “Very Big Brother”, beginning in 2020;
  • Bezos plans to reveal more details about the company’s rocket later this year;
  • The BE-4 engine will have 550,000 pounds of thrust, which is five times greater than the BE-3 motor used on New Shepard;
  • The BE-4 engine is being designed for a minimum of 25 uses;
  • The company has been quiet to avoid over promising and under delivering (“Space is really easy to overhype,” Bezos said);
  • The company’s logo features the motto Gradatim ferociter, which is Latin for “step by step, ferociously”, two tortoises representing the victory of the tortoise over the hare, and an hourglass symbolizing human mortality;
  • Blue Origin has 600 employees, with plans to grow to 1,000 within the next year;
  • Bezos has invested much more than 500 million in Blue Origin since he founded the company in 2000;
  • The Amazon.com founder’s goal is to spread humanity out into the solar system, making use of its vast resources and moving most heavy industry out into space;
  • Bezos says he is interested in Mars, but he believes the planet is a forbidding place that makes Antarctica looks temperate by comparison.


Jeff Bezos lifts curtain on Blue Origin rocket factory, lays out grand plan for space travel that spans hundreds of years

Jeff Bezos pulls back the curtain on his plans for space

Behind the curtain: Ars goes inside Blue Origin’s secretive rocket factory

Jeff Bezos Lifts Veil on His Rocket Company, Blue Origin

ULA Awards Upper Stage Engine Contract to XCOR

Engine hot fire (Credit: XCOR)
Engine hot fire (Credit: XCOR)

MIDLAND, Texas, March 9, 2016 (XCOR PR) — United Launch Alliance (ULA), the nation’s premier launch services provider, has awarded XCOR Aerospace with a new contract through the United States Air Force to develop an upper stage propulsion system for Vulcan, ULA’s next-generation launch system.


McCain Wants Russian Engine Restrictions USAF Says Would Be Costly

John McCain
John McCain

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) continued to push for a ban on the use of Russian-made rocket engines on United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Atlas V booster at a hearing on Thursday, saying that their use allowed President Vladimir Putin to hold U.S. national security launch capability ” in the palm of his hand.”

“This is a national security threat, in addition to a moral outrage, at a time when Russian forces continue to destabilize Ukraine – including nearly 500 attacks in the past week, as General Breedlove, the Commander of European Command, testified on Tuesday,” McCain said in a prepared statement.


Aerojet Rocketdyne Names Dynetics as Key AR1 Engine Team Member

dynetics_logoSACRAMENTO, Calif., Feb. 29, 2016 (Aerojet Rocketdyne PR) – Following the U.S. Air Force selection of AR1 for a Rocket Propulsion System award, Aerojet Rocketdyne, a subsidiary of Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings, Inc. (NYSE: AJRD), named Dynetics of Huntsville, Alabama, as a key team member for the AR1 engine development.