United Launch Alliance picks Blue Origin’s engine for its new rocket

United Launch Alliance has chosen Blue Origin's BE-4 engine as the first-stage engine of its next-generation rocket. Above, a test of the engine.
United Launch Alliance has chosen Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine as the first-stage engine of its next-generation rocket. Above, a test of the engine.
(Blue Origin)

Jeff Bezos’ space company won a significant vote of confidence for its new-technology rocket engine, as a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. chose it to power the first stage of a new rocket.

United Launch Alliance’s decision, announced Thursday, validates Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, which will use liquefied natural gas as a propellant instead of the usual kerosene. It also spells a significant loss for legacy aerospace firm Aerojet Rocketdyne, which competed for the contract.

The award’s value was not disclosed.

Two of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines will power the first-stage of ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, which is still in development and expected to make its first flight in 2020. ULA said in a statement Thursday that the rocket will have a maximum thrust at liftoff of 3.8 million pounds and will be capable of carrying 56,000 pounds to low-Earth orbit, slightly more than the advertised capacity of competitor SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.


The Vulcan Centaur is set to replace the ULA Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which are used to launch national security and commercial payloads.

ULA had long telegraphed its preference for Blue Origin’s engine. Industry analysts expected the venture to go with the upstart space company because the BE-4 engine was said to be further along in its development than Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine, and because it had the potential to be cheaper.

“Blue Origin doesn’t have much of a track record,” said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at Teal Group. “But I think the hope was that even though it’s a little riskier than going with a more proven engine with a more experienced company, ULA’s willing to bet on Blue Origin because ... it is the best hope that vehicle has to dramatically reduce its operating costs.”

A key to potentially lower costs is Blue Origin’s use of liquefied natural gas as an engine propellant. The Kent, Wash., company has said liquefied natural gas could be cheaper than kerosene, which is more commonly used in rocket engines, because it would not require a separate pressurization system for the propellant tanks.

Blue Origin Chief Executive Bob Smith said in a statement Thursday that the company was developing its production facility for the BE-4 engine in Huntsville, Ala., over the next year.

An Aerojet Rocketdyne spokesman said the company was “committed” to the AR1 engine, adding that the AR1 would be ready for hot-fire testing next year. The AR1’s engine parts are manufactured in Canoga Park and final assembly occurs at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s parent company is based in El Segundo.

“We designed that one to be configurable to multiple different types of launch vehicles,” said Steve Warren, chief communications officer. “We think it’s the ideal engine for a lot of different solutions.”

He said the company was “actively working” on locking down customers. ULA had previously announced that the RL-10, made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, would power the Vulcan Centaur’s upper-stage.


Warren said that the company’s liquid rocket engine business was “thriving,” adding that its engines are set to be used in a variety of other rockets, including Boeing’s Phantom Express, which is designed to carry small satellites, and Northrop Grumman Corp.’s next-generation OmegA intermediate and heavy-lift rocket, which is still under development.

Aerojet Rocketdyne engines are also currently used in ULA’s Delta IV Heavy rocket and are set to be used in NASA’s massive Space Launch System. The company has also recently expanded its missile-targets business. But losing a first-stage contract for a major launch services provider like ULA is significant, said Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International.

“That puts them in sort of a difficult spot going forward,” he said.


Twitter: @smasunaga


3:55 p.m.: This article was updated with details and analysis of the contract award.

This article was originally published at 11 a.m.