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Jeff Bezos’ Rocket Engine Nears Its Debut, Ending US Dependence on Russia

An engine made by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin LLC looks on track to show it can send heavy payloads into space in front of the Pentagon after several years of delay, bringing the US closer to ending its politically charged reliance on a model. is of Russian manufacture.

An engine made by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin LLC looks on track to show it can send heavy payloads into space in front of the Pentagon after several years of delay, bringing the US closer to ending its politically charged reliance on a model. is of Russian manufacture.

Blue Origin predicted in 2014 that its BE-4 engine would be ready in 2017 to launch the new Vulcan rocket built by the United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of the Pentagon’s top contractors Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. But the Government Accountability Office recently cited in June “continuing technical challenges in developing a US-produced rocket engine.”

Now, the US Space Force expresses its optimism, saying in a statement that “Vulcan launch system development activities continue to make progress” toward an initial test launch in December as “ULA and Blue Origin complete the originally planned BE-4 development tests.” have completed, and have successfully demonstrated full engine performance.”

United Launch Alliance used the reliable Russian RD-180 engine to launch its heavy Atlas V rocket on about 80 successful civilian, commercial and national security launches since 2000, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But Congress demanded a replacement for Russia’s engines after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and that argument has only grown stronger since President Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine in February.

Elon Musk, Bezos’ co-billionaire and competitive space entrepreneur, tore that Russian connection in his successful struggle to compete with what he called the Boeing-Lockheed monopoly for the Pentagon satellite launch.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, has received final certifications to fly its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch the most sensitive classified missions, including the first between October and December using reusable boosters.

For Bezos, the Space Force’s positive view of his company’s progress is good news after Blue Origin had to abort the launch of its suborbital New Shepard rocket shortly after takeoff in West Texas on Sept. 12. It was the company’s first major failure since its transition to routine commercial flights. The New Shepard is powered by a different engine than the BE-4.

United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan program “is now focused on completing BE-4 qualification testing and aircraft engine deliveries,” the Space Force said in its statement. The “other elements are going through final qualification tests to support initial launch capability.” ULA needs two successful flight tests scheduled for commercial launches as a Space Force certification requirement that missiles powered by the new engine can carry the most sensitive US military and intelligence cargo.

Frank Calvelli, the Air Force’s deputy secretary for space systems, said in a statement that ULA and Blue Origin “have done a lot to mitigate the risks, but much work and testing still needs to be done to make it to the December launch.”

The Space Force said it expects to complete ULA’s initial certification of the Vulcan rocket powered by the BE-4 engine in March 2023 for “lower launcher performance and payload” and final certification in 2025 for “our largest and most stressful” national security missions.

Those certifications would put ULA in a position to better compete with SpaceX, and potentially other companies, for a third round of as many as 39 national security space launch missions from fiscal 2025 to fiscal 2027, with the first award in October 2024.

“The first BE-4 flying engine is undergoing acceptance testing at Blue Origin’s facilities in Van Horn, Texas,” company spokesman William Boyington said in a statement. “Once final acceptance testing is completed, the aircraft engines will be delivered to ULA, with BE-4 production already underway at full speed.”

Asked about the biggest technical challenges the BE-4 engine has had to overcome, ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye said in a statement that it is “the largest liquefied natural gas engine developed and uses a powerful duty cycle. This required the maturation.” multiple advanced technologies, proven through a rigorous development testing program.”

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