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As summer turns to fall, ULA still waiting for its BE-4 rocket engines

Photograph of BE-4 "flight engine no. 2" on Blue Origin's test stand in Texas, as shared on Twitter by ULA chief executive Tory Bruno on August 26, 2022.
Enlarge / Photograph of BE-4 “flight engine no. 2” on Blue Origin’s test stand in Texas, as shared on Twitter by ULA chief executive Tory Bruno on August 26, 2022.

Blue Origin shipped the first “flight” version of its BE-4 rocket engine to Texas for acceptance testing six weeks ago. These tests, scheduled to take less than a month, marked the final step before Blue Origin delivered the much-anticipated rocket engines to its customer, United Launch Alliance. A second flight engine followed the first out of the factory in mid-August.

These were hopeful signs for United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is using two of the large liquid oxygen-methane engines to power its new heavy lift Vulcan rocket. At the urging of the US Department of Defense, ULA has been pressing hard to make a 2022 launch date debut.

However, neither of these flight engines have yet been shipped from Texas to ULA’s rocket factory in northern Alabama. There, ULA is eagerly awaiting the engines for pre-launch processing and installation onto the rocket.

In fact, the first flight engine had to be sent back to Blue Origin’s production facilities in Kent, Washington, after a minor problem was found on the test stand. ULA’s director of external communications, Jessica Rye, said the flight engine presently in Washington is expected to leave for Texas “shortly.” She confirmed that the other flight engine is undergoing “final acceptance testing” in Texas before shipment to Alabama.

“We are very pleased with where we are from a technical standpoint with the new BE-4 engines, and its great performance,” Rye said.

Engine 1 back to the barn

Sources told Ars that the first engine was put onto the test stand in Texas early in August, but almost as soon as work began to hot-fire the powerful engine an issue was discovered with the engine build. This necessitated a shipment back to Blue Origin’s factory in mid-August, as the company’s test stands in Texas do not allow for more than minor work.

As a result of this technical issue, ULA now appears likely to get one flight engine this month, but it probably will not receive the other one for installation onto the Vulcan rocket before mid-October, assuming a clean battery of tests in Texas.

Almost certainly this will preclude a debut of the Vulcan rocket in 2022. It will simply not be possible for ULA to install and test the engines, move the rocket to Florida, and stand it up for launch in less than three months. However, Rye said that remains the company’s goal. “ULA is planning for a launch by the end of the year,” she said.

The engines are not the only factor behind a potential delay for Vulcan. The customer for the rocket, Astrobotic, has not completed final assembly of its Peregrine spacecraft that is intended to land scientific and commercial payloads on the Moon.

“Peregrine is currently undergoing final integration at Astrobotic’s headquarters in Pittsburgh and will be ready for launch aboard ULA’s Vulcan Centaur,” said John Thornton, Astrobotic’s CEO, in a statement to Ars. “Our nimble team has already integrated all 24 payloads to Peregrine’s decks and successfully tested communications in July with NASA’s Deep Space Network.”

However, a source with knowledge of Peregrine’s development said Astrobotic is still validating the performance of thrusters built by Frontier Aerospace for the spacecraft. This raises questions about whether the Peregrine lander will be ready for delivery to ULA’s launch site in Florida by the end of the year. Astrobotic may decide to fly with some thruster risks or delay Peregrine’s launch to accommodate more testing.

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