SpaceX has built a globally recognized brand as the first producer of a commercial spacecraft which was launched into orbit and subsequently recovered. Don’t look now, but Jeff Bezos is doing Jeff Bezos things, and indications are that the rocket company he founded, Blue Origin, could imitate SpaceX’s premise and take feat of reusing rockets to unprecedented heights that could render its better-known competitor inferior.
While its latest engine, the B-4, is only in the testing stages, the long-term view for the rocket, and the Midas touch which Bezos has demonstrated time and again make it hard to bet against Blue Origin as a coming force as competition in the reusable rocket sector heats up. The BE-4 engine uses methane and liquid oxygen propellants which have been gradually tested over the course of seven years, a patient process which the Blue Origin team believes will allow for the rocket to work, with few if any unexpected flaws, when the time for it to come to market finally arrives.
I think people don’t have a full understanding of how long this development has been going on. It’s been going on for seven years, said Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith. It means we have a huge amount of component information to actually go rely on.
The stages of that process have included progressing from injector testing to pre-burner and powerpack testing prior to full-scale hotfire tests. Those tests were captured on video in March, when the engine was shown successfully firing for 114 seconds – about half the typical mission duty cycle – at 65% power. The company has also stated that they have met the technical and performance requirements for their most notable prospective client, the United Launch Alliance.
When the rocket is ready, a milestone that Smith believes will be fulfilled by the end of 2018, seven of the BE-4 engines will be equipped upon Blue Origin’s New Glenn Orbital launch vehicle. According to Smith, construction of parts for the launch vehicle is underway. And, even more impressively, the rocket is estimated to be capable of being reused for up to 100 missions.
This engine will actually perform 100 starts — 100 full missions that we’d actually be able to go do.
Those looking for proof of concept on a smaller scale should be directed to Blue Origin’s BE-3 engine, which was able to launch the company’s New Shepherd rocket system five times without being detached, successfully deploying an suborbital trip in December. Essentially, the BE-4 is five times larger than the BE-3, and the expected repeatability of use is expected to be 20 times greater than the five-launch sample size of the BE-3.
The methodical approach which Blue Origin has taken in producing its rockets, with little of the fanfare or self-promotion which SpaceX is known for, is expected to result in a superior product which will jump to the front of the line when it comes to taking on contracts for whoever is interested. This could include missions performed for the sake of national defense on behalf of the Air Force.
We’re excited about the commercial opportunities that’s going to give us: when we fly it on New Glenn and when we hopefully get selected by United Launch Alliance for its vehicle, Vulcan, as well, Smith said. We certainly are demonstrating all the technical characteristics that they need, for their vehicles. But we’re going to offer it to whoever else will come out and say they need a new engine.