Russian-speaking critics of Elon Musk in particular and of the entire American cosmonautics in general often forget that SpaceX has serious competitors in the United States that have suffered greatly from the actions of this company. Under the pressure of the success of the eccentric billionaire's firm, they are forced to get out as best they can. In such an environment, the constant delays in the development of the Atlas V successor using Russian RD-180 engines - ULA's Vulcan Centaur missiles - look odd. Therefore, Tori Bruno decided to try to explain them.
The head of the United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture between Lockheed Martin Space and Boeing Defense, Space & Security, Tori Bruno spoke to reporters on Thursday, August 5. According to the SpaceNews portal, he told what caused the delay in the serial production of BE-4 engines. They are developed and produced by the well-known company Blue Origin with the direct participation of ULA. Initially, both organizations intended to show a flight-ready version of this unit in 2017.
But time passed and the expected dates were left behind. Since Blue Origin is not particularly fond of sharing details about its activities, there is little information on the reasons for the delays. It is known that at the beginning of 2017, tests of the BE-4 assembly just started, and already in May one of the tests revealed an anomaly and the engine partially collapsed. Earlier in 2015, an explosion also occurred during testing of individual units. All in all, building a closed cycle methane / oxygen engine has definitely not been smooth.
According to Bruno, ULA and Blue Origin are now stepping up the pace of work on the project. Production of pre-production copies of the BE-4 goes along with pre-qualification and qualification testing. These procedures are necessary for the admission of a unit of a certain design to flight and are usually carried out before the start of mass production. But the deadlines are running out, and the previously conducted test cycles instill confidence in engineers that serious unpleasant surprises from the engines can no longer be expected.
Nevertheless, and Tory noted this separately, without thorough testing and full qualification of the BE-4, none of them will fly anywhere. Both process cycles - manufacturing and testing - simply run in parallel and are designed so that each of them has the opportunity to make changes if any shortcomings are identified. "I will not try to deceive you, the engines are seriously late," Bruno honestly told reporters. And he told why it happened: it's the testing program that is to blame.
The head of ULA admitted that the company he represents and Blue Origin planned to dispose of a much larger number of test equipment and complexes. How it happened that in the end there were fewer of them, he did not say. But he shared that the difficulties encountered during the development surpassed all the expectations of the engineers of both firms. Accordingly, the adjustment of production was also delayed and was much more difficult than originally anticipated. Nevertheless, Bruno hopes to receive the first two BE-4s qualified for flights by the end of the year.
The engine that will save the American astronautics …
No matter how strange it may sound, the financial well-being of three companies at once - Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin and Boeing - largely depends on BE-4. No, if the engine fails, they won't go broke. But when a billion dollars is on the line, losing it is always unpleasant.Namely, this is how much the US Space Force will transfer to them for the successful development of the Vulcan Centaur rocket. Part of this money has already been paid, but not much. The contractors will receive the full amount of the contract only if they can launch the payload already ordered by the military by the end of 2022. And before that, in order to fulfill the qualification conditions, you need to complete two more successful commercial starts.
In addition to the money, there is also a question of the prestige of American astronautics in general with the BE-4. Or, more precisely, the "oldies" of the industry - will such aksakals like Boeing and Lockheed Martin not be able to find a relatively cheap and efficient enough engine for their rocket in time? An additional irony of the situation is given by the fact that at the dawn of the development of the Vulcan Centaur, a stake was made on the "private owner" Blue Origin, and the experienced Aerojet Rocketdyne with its AR1 was "pushed under the carpet."
And having created the predecessor of the Vulcan Centaur - the incredibly reliable Atlas V - Lockheed Martin stepped on their own tail. In the late 1990s, when the question arose about the development of a relatively inexpensive missile under the contract of the US Air Force Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV), the idea of using the affordable and attractive Russian RD-180 engines looked good. Moreover, the development of suitable units on their own or with the help of partners turned into a financial nightmare.
However, this only pushed the American astronautics back even more in the creation of high-power oxygen-kerosene rocket engines. And with them, enterprises in the United States since the time of Von Braun, in general, everything was somehow difficult due to the peculiarities of the design school.
Technically, the BE-4 is an interesting unit. It uses methane (liquefied natural gas) as a fuel and liquid oxygen as an oxidizing agent. The engine is structurally capable of multiple starts, but a simpler version will be installed on the Vulcan Centaur. Finally, in terms of power, it is comparable to the brainchild of SpaceX - the Raptor engine. Although it uses a simpler cycle of work, that is, in theory, it can be cheaper.
The Vulcan Centaur rocket itself is a hybrid of proven and new solutions already familiar to the American aerospace industry. The second stage (according to the Russian classification - the upper stage) is exactly the same as on the Atlas V: the "old man" Centaur. He only slightly updated the engines, and slightly increased the volume of fuel. But the first stage is completely new, it is larger than that of the Atlas, has a diameter similar to the Delta IV modules (4.5 meters) and carries two BE-4s. If necessary, in addition to it, you can attach up to six solid fuel boosters. The maximum configuration allows you to throw 27.2 tons into low-earth orbit (LEO, 200 kilometers), and the lightest - 10.6 tons.
… or was late for years
While Tori Bruno was trying to save face in front of journalists, Elon Musk's team was already in full swing mounting the prototype of the gigantic Super Heavy booster on the launch pad. Now an orbital prototype of the Starship spacecraft has also been tried on, and in the coming weeks there will be its first launch. Recall that in the entire bundle of SpaceX's super-heavy space system, there are far from two powerful methane rocket engines, but thirty-two (perhaps another one will be added to the spacecraft before the flight). And the company's manufacturing facility produces one Raptor every two days.
ULA and Blue Origin's development cycle is no question when viewed from a "classic" astronautics perspective. Professionals (and no one doubts this) work tirelessly in the credo set 70 years ago. They do things that are technically interesting and in line with the terms of reference. But in the 21st century, the situation has changed somewhat - now heavy-class missiles (more than 20 tons per LEO) are designed reusable and with a launch price of about $ 70 million without additional conditions. And the Vulcan Centaur will be a one-off and the minimum announced price of its launch is designated at $ 99 million.
The future of this rocket in the modern launch services market is a big question.And it's not just SpaceX with its Falcon 9. Elon Musk's company simply won't be enough for all possible orders, and the military needs alternatives. But only in the United States there are already several private companies that are going exactly the same way as SpaceX: they make light rockets, and then develop reusable medium and heavy rockets on their basis.
After the start of operation of the Vulcan Centaur ULA will have to rebuild on new rails and, thanks to its experience, make something similar to the Falcon 9. Otherwise, the chances are that the joint venture between Boeing and Locheed Martin will become history. And the long-suffering rocket will be completely forgotten after five or six already contracted launches. Well, it's too early to even talk about Blue Origin with its New Glenn, for which, in the first place, the BE-4 is intended. When else this superheavy will take off is generally unclear.