Bezos’ Rocket May End U.S. Reliance on Russian Engine

blueorigin_launch

The rocket launched this week by Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos’ private space company may help break the U.S. military’s reliance on Russian engines.

Bezos’ company, Blue Origin LLC, on Wednesday successfully lifted off its New Shepard spacecraft from a range in West Texas. The unmanned vehicle, powered by a liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen engine called BE-3, hit Mach 3 and climbed 307,000 feet into space before beginning a controlled descent back to Earth.

The firm has teamed with United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co., to develop an updated version of the engine that could eventually serve as a replacement to a Russian design used on U.S. military rockets.

The RD-180, made by Russia’s NPO Energomash, is a first-stage engine on the Atlas V rocket in the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

While the engine is relatively cheap and has helped fuel ULA’s long record of successful launches, it has become a flash point in the debate over American reliance on Russian technology for national-security programs, particularly amid rising tensions between the two countries over Russia’s military involvement in the Ukraine and other matters.

Faced with pressure to use another engine and potential future competition from another commercial rocket-maker, known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, ULA this month unveiled a new rocket called the Vulcan that could be powered by Blue Origin’s reusable engine.

vulcan-600x400

In a press release promoting Wednesday’s liftoff, Blue Origin referenced the enhanced propulsion system, called the BE-4. Designed to provide 550,000 pounds of thrust, it would pack five times the punch of the existing engine and run on liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen.

“We continue to be big fans of the vertical takeoff, vertical landing architecture,” it states. “We chose VTVL because it’s scalable to very large size. We’re already designing New Shepard’s sibling, her Very Big Brother – an orbital launch vehicle that is many times New Shepard’s size.”

While the company touted a “flawless first test flight,” it wasn’t able to recover the propulsion module — necessary to make rockets reusable — “because we lost pressure in our hydraulic system on descent,” the release states. (SpaceX had similar problems during its two unsuccessful attempts to land its Falcon 9 rockets on a barge after launching spacecraft to deliver cargo to the International Space Station.)

Like SpaceX, Blue Origin vows to continue to work to make rockets reusable.

“We’ve already been in work for some time on an improved hydraulic system,” the release states. “Also, assembly of propulsion module serial numbers 2 and 3 is already underway – we’ll be ready to fly again soon.”

ULA, meanwhile, is hedging its bets. If Blue Origin hits a snag building the BE-4, the venture plans to use the AR-1, a liquid oxygen and kerosene-fueled propulsion system being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Here’s a video of the New Shepard liftoff:

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of Military.com. He can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_

    I wonder if Bezos had always thought of making the first stage re-usable, or if that was simply following Elon Musk (or did Bezos think of this first?)

    If SpaceX loses and fizzles, would ULA go back to the old way of doing business? Probably, especially if the Ukrainian issue fizzles out and the ULA goes back to outsourcing rockets from overseas.

  • Jeff M

    There’s a rocket in Jeff Bezos’ pocket, built to the same scale.

  • rick

    Half of me is going, this is fantastic, my child minded other half me is just like……IT..it looks like a

  • Bob

    NASA and the Air Force (through inept US government bungling) should have never gotten foreign entities involved in our rocket/space/military programs. That was not only a huge blunder, it was just plain stupid. But, the upside is that we learned from this fiasco (or at least I hope we did) that the American aerospace industry must be completely independent from foreign influence. Gee! Can you imagine a fighter jet dependent upon Russian engines? Invade the Ukraine or any other nation upon the earth and then cut off the supply of engines and parts to our Air Force to prevent us from coming to the rescue. Pretty nightmarish scenario. Pretty ingenious on the part of our enemies! The best defense is to simply control the manufacture of American military hardware. Hey Congress! Wake up!

    • Leon Suchorski

      You have forgotten, that the reason that we did, was because of the INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION. Countries from all over this world had a part in building it. And I mean more than Canada, and the Canada arm that they use outside of the station. It was only natural that we unite with Russia on something, and they had the high lift capability rockets.

      • miles

        ISS had nothing to do with it US bought the engines in order to keep former soviet rocket scientist from go to work in Iran.NK,and China.

    • Peter Miles

      I agree with everything you say but the sad fact is that although your fighter planes may not have Russian engines they do have a lot of Chinese electronic components. That bothers me!

    • Wulf145

      So you are saying that NASA should not have hired Wernher v Braun to help get the US missile & space programs off the ground?

      Look him up and you will see that NASA has been relying on Foreign expertise for decades.

      • Drew

        You mean the Nazi who used slave labor to develop missiles to launch at London? Yes!

  • jack

    Congrats! Anything that gets us from under Putin’s skirt is welcome. haha

  • Leon Suchorski

    You said some dirty words there… “Congress has brains”?

  • Mitch S.

    When did work on this rocket start?
    Haven’t heard of Blue Origin for very long yet here they are putting hardware up to space.
    Impressive.

  • oblatt23

    Our space program can be internationally competitive or it can be American, but it cant be both. I think like in so many other industries now Americans will settle for second best if it has a flag on it.

    • mike

      and that is why space X is taking over the private launch market. Move along pls.

  • franklin

    All this production is only going to last a decade before something like Skylon or a useable EM-drive comes along. Advanced computer modeling already has some people talking fusion reactors soon, so why not a fusion propulsion unit firing a hydrogen stream similar to an ion drive. As long as AI doesn’t kill us off there should be some miracles in the pipeline soon. Step aside Flash Gordon, here comes Dark Star.

    • blight_

      I’m sure they said that a decade ago when justifying the killing of NASA…and we haven’t made more than incremental movements since putting people on the moon, let alone doing much in earth orbit other than Skylab, Salyuts, Mir and ISS.

    • franklin

      Nasa signed off on the Skylon engines, and the Johnston space center is vaccuum testing the EM drive, but can’t explain why it works. All the Space launch countries are working on it to be the first one. Dawn made it to Ceres without a rocket engine. The voyagers and new horizon are nuclear powered and leaving the solar system. The trouble is not if it’s coming, but can we handle it when it does. Given the current administration maybe we should have Jose Jimenez in charge!

  • Danowitz

    False hope. This program is going nowhere.

  • thomas

    the BE-4 isn’t a drop in replacement it uses methane and lox while RD-180 uses RP-1 and lox. and the Atlas V will be outright replace by the Vulcan rocket first by replacing the first stage Atlas V and keeping the upper stage but it will not be an Atlas V but the Vulcan version 1.

  • Stan

    SpaceX is already ending US reliance on the Russian engine but please, don’t bother reflecting that in the title.

  • Brian B. Mulholland

    Aaaahh, fusion reactors. How long has that been just around the corner … ?

    • franklin

      Well this one maybe for the pooper scooper, but “Lockheed Martin’s plan is to “build and test a compact fusion reactor in less than a year with a prototype to follow within five years.” “The high beta fusion reactor (also known as the 4th generation prototype T4) is a project being developed by a team led by Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works. The “high beta” configuration allows a compact fusion reactor design and speedier development timeline. It was first presented at the Google Solve for X forum on February 7, 2013″ Wiki

      • Brian B. Mulholland

        Even if you assume that LM can deliver on this (no small assumption) I don’t think you can assume that the reactor will be immediately suitable for use in a first or second stage on a rocket.

        Even if the reactor works as planned, I’ll be delighted to live long enough to see a fusion power source, probably delivered to LEO for mating with other components, for taking probes out to Pluto. And beyond!

  • Fordownr

    LNG and LOX, Don’t be anywhere near that thing if something goes awry….. The Kerosene and LOX seems more stable….

    • ronaldo

      And not that efficient compared to their approach. Where is there more energy…..a pound of jet fuel or a pound of LNG ?

      • Atomic Walrus

        A pound of LNG. LNG is CH4 – 2 H2 molecules per carbon. Jet fuel or kerosene is an alkane with 1.8 H2 molecules per carbon. The carbon oxidizes to CO2, releasing 393 kJ/kmol. The hydrogen oxidizes to water vapor, releasing 241 kJ/kmol. However, the carbon needs a whole molecule of O2, whereas the hydrogen needs only 1/2 molecule. That means that you get 8% more energy per unit mass for the LNG fuel supply than the jet fuel/kerosene. Plus, fewer carbons means fewer problems with issues like coking of injectors & burners.

  • Kodai

    Atlas V lifts more than the Falcon 9. BE-4 is also about half the thrust of the RD-180, so that’s more cost when you have 2 of them.

  • Rob C.

    I guess it took longer to develop Big Blue. I do wonder if they can keep going developing it, perhaps more the launcher as alternative to current fleet of commercial rockets with payloads.

  • t1oracle

    I’m rooting for SpaceX. Although I appreciate this effort and hope it adds to our inventory of reusable rocket platforms, I think the SpaceX design is better.

  • David

    What a wonderful thing to watch private companies and people compete to build the better “mousetrap”! No government BS, no crying to congress for more funding, and no politicians using it for their own reelection. I’ll never get over Clinton ordering NASA to come up with a “mission” on the shuttle for a 77yr old senator after he changed his vote so some socialist democratic bill would be passed.

    And you want to go back to the Clintons???

    • ronaldo

      Everything can be politicized David….EVERYTHING ! And you are doing your best to do just that.

      If you find the flight of John Glenn on the Shuttle to be offensive, then check the flight records of the SR-71 fleet as I have. It’s pretty pathetic. The quid pro quo to your example is our former US Representitive “B-1 Bob” Dornan demanding and getting a flight to buy more influence in the US Congress. ( Check the records. Your tax payer dollars even flew a Catholic bishop at mach 3+)

      This shit is not the monopoly of any one party. Take a cold shower before your next post.