Blue Origin is taking significantly longer than projected to finish testing and manufacturing of BE-4 rocket engines for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle, according to the chief of the US Space Force launch enterprise. In pre-qualification tests, the engine is performing as expected, and ULA’s latest estimates that the Vulcan will possess flight-qualified engines by close of the year seem “doable,” according to Col. Robert Bongiovi, who works at the Space Systems Command as a director in charge of the launch enterprise, who spoke to SpaceNews at 36th Space Symposium.
Bongiovi is in charge of National Security Space Launch (NSSL) initiative, which chose SpaceX and ULA as the two companies to launch intelligence and military satellites for the next five years last year. The timeframe for Vulcan is a major worry because it will replace ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which the Pentagon will no longer buy after 2022 due to its Russian-built RD-180 engines.
Bongiovi stated, “The BE-4 engine has indeed been overdue for a long period.” “Now we need to focus on staying on course from here on out because that’s what we’ve been working on.” ULA was given four NSSL Phase 2 missions to launch on a Vulcan vehicle between 2022 and 2023 after winning 60% of NSSL Phase 2 missions. When it became evident that the Vulcan would not be approved in time to deploy NSSL missions in 2022, the first one was shifted to the Atlas 5. Two effective orbital launches are required for certification.
ULA stated that it intends to certify Vulcan by 2023 for it to launch the remaining three NSSL missions to which it has been assigned thus far. According to Bongiovi, the vehicle now has a “tight schedule.” “However, I don’t lie awake at night thinking about how these 3 missions will reach orbit.” “They’ll make it to orbit,” Bongiovi stated.
On the topic of what the Vulcan postponement implies for national security space launch, Bongiovi reiterated Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall’s answer on Aug. 24. Kendall explained that because NSSL has two providers, there is a backup plan in case one of them is unable to launch satellites into space. “We’re sticking to the plan,” Bongiovi added.
SpaceX could theoretically take on more flights if needed, but “that’s not a place I want to go,” he added. “I’m invested in both of these businesses. And I believe both of these firms will be critical to our operations… and we’re striving to make that transition.”
“It’s sad where the timetable is,” he added about the BE-4 engine. “From here on out, we simply have to stay focused and get through the remainder of the construction so we possess the vehicles we require for the 3 launches we have scheduled.”