The chief executives of Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance briefed Frank Kendall, the Air Force Secretary, on the Vulcan Centaur, which is a new launch vehicle built by ULA and propelled by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines, on August 24.
At a media briefing at 36th Space Symposium, Kendall remarked, “I did have an opportunity to meet with Blue Origin and ULA today.”
The meeting’s major topic was ULA’s delays in developing and testing the BE-4 rocket engine needed to fly the new rocket. Kendall added, “I wanted to have an assessment from them on wherever they are and what they’re seeing.”
Vulcan is a project in which the Air Force has a significant investment for a variety of reasons. It is paying roughly $1 billion in vehicle development expenditures. It is the vehicle chosen by the Air Force in 2020 to deploy national security satellites during the next five years, alongside SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy.
The rocket is also strategically important to the Air Force because it will replace the Atlas 5 in the countrywide security launch fleet developed by ULA. Because it utilizes the Russian-created RD-180 rocket engine, the Atlas 5 must be phased out. In 2016, Congress approved legislation prohibiting the US military from acquiring launch services for vehicles powered by the RD-180 engine after 2022.
The BE-4 is more than a decade behind schedule. ULA CEO Tory Bruno recently told SpaceNews that the first 2 flight-ready engines should arrive later this year. “I expect engines by the close of the year,” Bruno remarked in a tweet. If there are any unanticipated obstacles, they may be able to overcome them. The engine is now functioning well in preliminary testing, and flight engines have commenced fabrication.”
Kendall, who took over as secretary in charge of Air Force in late July, was in control of Pentagon purchases under the Obama administration when the Department of Defense was forced to respond to Congress’s drive to prohibit military usage of the RD-180.
“The plan was to work with the sector — which had both a commercial and a military market — to be able to get them to a point where they could guarantee us access to space and ongoing competition,” Kendall explained. Kendall remained tight-lipped about his conversation with Bruno and Blue Origin Chief Executive Officer Bob Smith. He did, however, express optimism that they are going to be able to solve the issue.
“They are still hoping to be able to carry out their plan. But there’s clearly a risk in that timeline,” Kendall explained. Kendall also stated that one of the reasons he fought for two suppliers in the national defence space launch program was to provide a backup in the event that one of them is unable to deliver payloads.