Bezos Unveils New Engine for Military Rockets

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Jeff Bezos, founder of the online retailing giant Amazon.com, has unveiled a new commercial engine design for legacy military rockets.

Bezos, who also heads up the private spaceflight company Blue Origin LLC, was on hand with Tony Bruno, the new chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture, United Launch Alliance LLC, on Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce an agreement to jointly fund development of the BE-4 engine.

The engine is designed to provide 550,000 pounds of thrust and replace the Russian-made RD-180 propulsion system currently on the Atlas V rocket, one of two boosters used by the Air Force's Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to lift military and spy satellites into space.

"This business is too hard if you're not passionate about it," Bezos said, referring to space launch. "Cost and reliability are the two driving factors."

In a statement released to coincide with the event, he said, "The team at Blue Origin is methodically developing technologies to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability, and the BE-4 is a big step forward. With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great US-made rocket engine."

Bruno, who last month replaced Michael Gass in a sudden change in leadership at ULA, said the partnership between the defense contracting giant and the space tourism start-up represented "the best of both worlds."

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In the statement, he said, "Blue Origin has demonstrated its ability to develop high-performance rocket engines and we are excited to bring together the best minds in engineering, supply chain management and commercial business practices to create an all-new affordable, reliable, American rocket engine that will create endless possibilities for the future of space launch."

The pact calls for developing the engine over four years, with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The system will be available for use on either ULA or Blue Origin rockets.

The liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas engine will deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, according to the statement. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, it states. Development of the engine has been underway for three years and component testing continues at Blue Origin's facilities in Texas. Bezos' company recently purchased a new facility to support full engine testing.

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ULA has faced relentless criticism from another start-up, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, for charging excessive launch fees and using Russian-made technology.

SpaceX, which on Tuesday won a $2.4 billion contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, is trying to break into the military market and may receive certification from the Air Force by December to carry national-security payloads aboard its Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing also won a commercial crew contract for NASA, but it was much larger -- $4.2 billion -- for the same work: as many as six missions to and from the orbital outpost. The difference apparently is the result of SpaceX simply proposing to do the work for less.

Both contracts "have the same requirements and the companies proposed the value for which they were able to do the work, and the government accepted that," Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA's commercial crew program, according to an article by Christian Davenport of The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne has also partnered with a company called Dynetics to design the AR-1, a smaller, higher-performing version of the Apollo-era F-1, that could be used on both NASA and military rockets.

The Air Force recently began looking into ways to develop a possible replacement to the RD-180. The service next week plans to meet with firms interested in bidding for the work.

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