According to United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno, the obstacles Blue Origin would confront in developing, testing, and producing the BE-4 rocket engine were overestimated. He admitted that the engine project is years behind the plan but that the BE-4 is functioning well in tests so far and that entirely constructed flying engines should arrive within months. In a meeting with SpaceNews, Bruno said, “I hope to have flight engines before the close of the year.”
The first stage of ULA’s new rocket, Vulcan Centaur, will be powered by two BE-4 engines. In 2014, ULA and Blue Origin agreed to finance the production of the BE-4 jointly, and in 2015, ULA announced that Vulcan would replace the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 as its next-generation rocket.
In 2015, Blue Origin stated the engines would be available by 2017. Everything in the BE-4 program, according to Bruno, has taken significantly longer than expected. “I’m not going to lie to you: the engines are running late,” Bruno stated emphatically. “What’s the matter with them being late? They’re late because the test program is taking longer than expected, and they’re taking longer than expected to manufacture the production engines.”
“And why is that happening?” says the narrator. It’s happening as this testing is proving to be more difficult than expected. And since they permitted themselves, we as a program allowed ourselves to work with fewer test assets than we had planned,” he continued.
All of these concerns are causing “us to take longer to proceed through this test program.” And the same can be said for the production side of things,” Bruno explained. The pre-qualifying phase will be accompanied by more stringent qualification testing, which will take place concurrently with the flight engine manufacturing. This strategy carries some risk, but he claims there have been “no serious concerns” so far.
“We have already completed so much testing that we are confident in starting and even finishing the production of the flight engines. We won’t fly those engines until we’ve completed all of our testings.”
At Blue Origin’s facilities in Van Horn, Texas, several BE-4 engines are now undergoing pre-qualification tests. In Kent, Washington, the first two aircraft engines are being constructed. According to Bruno, the two flight engines might or might not be completed before the qualifying program is completed. At ULA’s rocket facility in Decatur, Alabama, “we’ll take them as fast as they’re available and incorporate them into a flight booster.”
Engineers are pressing the engine “above and beyond requirements” during pre-qualification testing, he claimed. “This entails running for longer periods or at higher intensities. It’s just a nice thing to do when you get the chance.”