ULA has selected Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for the Vulcan Centaur’s booster stage. The selection follows the completion of a competitive procurement contest. The liquefied natural gas (LNG) fueled booster will be powered by a pair of BE-4 engines, each producing 550,000 pounds of sea level thrust. ULA held a multiyear competition that pitted startup Blue Origin against industry incumbent Aerojet Rocketdyne, which proposed its AR1 engine. Once operational, the Vulcan, powered by the BE-4, will end reliance on the Russian-built RD-180 that powers the Atlas V currently used by ULA.
Despite Aerojet’s status as an industry incumbent, and its long, storied history in the space industry, Blue Origin was the favored solution from the start. Blue Origin’s engine is farther along in development than the AR1 and is expected to be cheaper to produce. In addition, Blue Origin is funding much of the BE-4 development on its own, while Aerojet Rocketdyne depended on the U.S. Department of Defense for much of the funding necessary to develop the AR1.
Even though the decision is not a surprise, it is both a major victory for Blue Origin and a major loss for Aerojet Rocketdyne. The victory establishes Blue Origin as a major player in the launch industry, even before its own New Glenn and New Shepard rockets become operational. It also sets up an interesting relationship between ULA and Blue Origin. Once Blue Origin’s New Glenn launch vehicle becomes operational, the company will become one of the major competitors to ULA while also being one of its major suppliers.
For Aerojet Rocketdyne, the loss is significant. The company does have business in its pipeline. For example, its RL10 will power the Vulcan’s upper stage. In addition, Aerojet is building the liquid propulsion Divert and Attitude Control System (DACS) for the Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) program, and is building the RS-25 engine that will power the SLS. However, with its loss to Blue Origin, Aerojet Rocketdyne will not be involved in development of any of the heavy-class launch vehicles – such as Falcon 9, Vulcan, Omega, or New Glenn – that act as the workhorses of the launch industry. The first stage makes up the bulk of the cost of a launch vehicle, so production of the rocket motors for the first stage is a lucrative market for engine makers. Losing the contract will hurt Aerojet.
Aerojet says that it still has opportunities to sell the AR1, despite losing the contract. ULA planned to equip the Vulcan’s first stage with two AR1s. However, Aerojet says that medium-class launch vehicles could use a single AR1, reducing capability but also decreasing price. However, there are few opportunities in the medium-class launch market, as the market is split between heavy launch vehicles like the Vulcan and lightweight launch vehicles like the Rocket Lab Electron.
Furthermore, Aerojet Rocketdyne has not spent any of its own money on AR1 research and development since 2015, a sign that the company was relying on the Air Force and ULA to fund development of the rocket motor. Without ULA as a launch customer, it remains to be seen if development of the AR1 will continue and, if it does, if someone else will step in to fund development of the motor.
The selection of Blue Origin is also a sign that the technology behind methane-powered rocket motors has matured. For decades, liquid-fueled rockets have used RP-1, a dense but low specific impulse fuel. However, many new startups are experimenting with methane as a fuel source. Methane is less dense than RP-1, but also has higher specific impulse. SpaceX is also working on a methane-fueled engine called the Raptor to power its next-generation BFR (Big Falcon Rocket).
Finally, the selection of Blue Origin to build engines for ULA is a sign that the launch market is experiencing a major shakeup. New entrants are emerging, while older established companies are fighting to stay competitive. The very fact that Blue Origin is developing the Vulcan is in itself a response to the rise of SpaceX and its low-cost Falcon 9. This shakeup is expected to continue as new companies enter the market using new technologies, business models, and production techniques to lower the cost of traveling to space.