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.
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: