$2 Billion Deal for ULA Threatens Blue Origin’s New Engine

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Micah Knight/Managing Editor

Rocket engine supplier Aerojet Rocketdyne announced a $2 billion deal to acquire the United Launch Alliance (ULA). ULA is Boeing and Lockheed Martin’s joint venture and has been the major military contractor for satellite launches for the last nine years.

ULA’s current rockets use the Russian RD-180 engine, and over the last year Congress has passed a number of bills requiring the company to use US-built engines by the end of the decade.

Last year, ULA announced that they were asking Blue Origin to develop an engine for the Vulcan Rocket, their Next Generation Launch System. Blue Origin and Aerojet are direct competitors for the rocket, but Blue Origin is roughly 16 months ahead of Aerojet in engine development and ahead of schedule on their timeline.

The bid Aerojet proposed to acquire ULA presents a complicated situation for Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company funded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. It seems like a desperate measure to ensure their engine gets selected for the new Vulcan rocket. If Aerojet controlled ULA, it would be a simple matter for them to choose their own engine for the new rocket.

In response, ULA and Blue Origin issued a press release announcing an expanded production agreement for Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. The press release included definitive wording, such as “the American-made BE-4 engine that will power the Vulcan next generation launch vehicle” and other indications that the ULA has every intention of selecting Blue Origin’s engine for the Vulcan. The question is if that will be a factor in accepting or rejecting Aerojet’s bid.

Additional factors remain that complicate the situation. Aerojet has been making rocket engines for decades, while Blue Origin has only produced three, two too small for a vehicle large enough to launch a human or sizeable satellite. On the other hand, Blue Origin’s rocket is further ahead in development, and scheduled to be certified long before the rest of the Vulcan rocket has been put together for testing.

Aerojet’s AR1 engine uses RP-1 fuel which is fairly standard for rockets, but Blue Origin’s BE-4 is innovative, powered by liquid methane, which may require a renovation of ground infrastructure on the launch pad.

ULA made it clear that the decision of which engine will be used on the Vulcan will not be finalized until 2016. The maiden voyage of the rocket will be no earlier than 2019. If Aerojet obtains ULA, an announcment amending that decision may be seen sooner.

ULA has delivered over 90 satellites to orbit over the past ten years – about nine a year, so it seems that acquiring ULA would not greatly benefit Aerojet. Perhaps there are factors other than the engine competition behind the deal.

Were Aerojet to obtain ULA and oust Blue Origin’s engine from the new Vulcan rocket, the blow would hardly be crushing. Blue Origin has other plans for its rocket and company, including a reusable suborbital vehicle for private spaceflight (“space tourism”) and a reusable orbital vehicle to launch satellites to compete with SpaceX.

The development of the BE-4 engine is ultimately intended for the orbital vehicle and is not at all dependent on ULA’s rocket, decision, or owners.

How the deal pans out remains to be seen, but how it does will affect the use and reputation of each company and rocket.