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USA’s efforts to stop relying on Russian-built rocket engines derailed by issues with Blue Origin’s BE-4

Things aren’t looking too good for a certain American-produced rocket engine, according to the US Government Accountability Office – and it isn’t SpaceX’s Merlin.

The June GAO Weapon Systems Annual Assessment report to Congress [PDF] makes grim reading for fans of billionaire-built space stuff. Noted by NASAWatch, the section of the report concerning the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) was clear about the challenges faced by a “US-produced rocket engine under development for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle.”

What engine could that be?

ULA’s Vulcan Centaur, self-described as “America’s Rocket” and slated to replace the existing Atlas V for NSSL payloads, is powered by a variety of engines. Up to six Northrop Grumman Graphite Epoxy Motor (GEM) 63XL Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) can be strapped to the first stage and the second stage uses a pair of workhorse RL10C engines (which have been used on nearly 400 successful flights).

The first stage, however, is also due to be powered by a pair of BE-4 engines, manufactured by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. These have yet to see action on the way to orbit. As well as ULA’s new launcher, the engines also power Blue Origin’s New Glenn, the maiden flight of which has been punted to the end of 2022.

The GAO report noted the “technical challenges” were related to “the igniter and booster capabilities required” and that there was a risk of qualification not being complete in time. The result could be a switch back to trusty Atlas V, which carries its own problems.

The first stage of the Atlas V is powered by RD-180 engines, manufactured in the Russian Federation. The NSSL’s goal is to remove this reliance, although an amendment permits the use of 18 more engines for contracts awarded through 2022. The Vulcan Centaur and its BE-4-engined first stage is ULA’s primary solution to the problem. Time, however, is getting a bit tight.

As for SpaceX, its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets are certified for national security launches, although the GAO noted that the Heavy had been “on track to support its first [national security] mission in May 2021.”

The Register asked Blue Origin and ULA for their take on the report and will update should either respond. ®


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