‘Where are my engines, Jeff?’ Ars investigates Blue Origin BE-4 engine delay for ULA Vulcan rocket

You don’t have to spend much time on Space Twitter or Reddit to stumble upon a few dozen “Where are my engines, Jeff?” memes. Ars Technica recently took a shot at finding the answer to why Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines are delayed.

In know your meme fashion, Eric Berger reports:

This delivery has been a long time coming. United Launch Alliance, or ULA, first agreed to buy the engines from Blue Origin back in 2014. It was a bold bet by ULA, a blueblood in space launch, on a new entrant to the market. But with the BE-4 engine, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos was promising a relatively low-cost, high performing engine with a power output comparable to a Space Shuttle main engine. At the time of this initial agreement, Blue Origin said the BE-4 would be “ready for flight” by 2017.

ULA, headed by Tory Bruno, is relying on Blue Origin’s delayed BE-4 engines to power its next-gen Vulcan rocket. Berger ultimately concludes that Blue Origin was still ULA’s best choice for engine providers in 2014 over competition from Aerojet Rocketdyne, but that doesn’t mean the process has gone as expected.

Berger lays out the challenge and state of progress:

According to these sources, the flight engines to be delivered to ULA, no. 1 and no. 2, are not yet fully assembled. But most of the components are built. The good news is that Blue Origin believes it has retired all of the significant technical risks. […]

The risk is that ULA will receive the flight engines before the full qualification testing is complete. This qualification work on Blue Origin’s test stands will be occurring even as ULA integrates the engines with its first Vulcan rocket for testing and ultimately a launch during the second half of 2022. So if Blue Origin finds a last-minute issue with the BE-4 engine, ULA may have to unwind its work on final Vulcan development.

There may be a fix in place for the future of BE-4 engines however:

The arrival of propulsion engineer John Vilja about two years ago seems to have improved the situation at Blue Origin. Vilja serves as Senior Vice President of Engines. Sources said he grasps the importance of developing an engine in a hardware rich environment. The changes he implemented over the last 12 to 18 months are now beginning to bear fruit.

But that doesn’t necessarily make anything easier for Blue in the short term given the nature of ULA’s business:

The challenge for Blue Origin is that in working for ULA, it is essentially dealing with the US military, which has exacting standards for the performance of rocket engines launching its most valuable payloads. And since the BE-4 will be called upon to launch high value satellites for the Department of Defense nearly from the beginning, it must meet those standards up front rather than after a number of test flights. The paperwork and testing required for such certification is lengthy.

Read the full report on Ars Technica for more details.

Image credit: Reddit from SmarterEveryday’s excellent ULA factory tour video.

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