The head of the U.S. Space Force launch enterprise said it is “unfortunate” that Blue Origin is taking far longer than expected to complete the testing and production of BE-4 rocket engines for United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle.
The engine however is performing as well as expected in pre-qualification tests and ULA’s current projections that Vulcan will have flight-qualified engines by year’s end seem “doable,” Col. Robert Bongiovi, director of the launch enterprise at the Space Systems Command, told SpaceNews in an interview at the 36th Space Symposium.
Bongiovi oversees the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program that last year selected ULA and SpaceX as the two providers that will launch military and intelligence agency satellites for the next five years. Vulcan’s schedule is a pressing concern as the vehicle is slated to replace ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket that DoD cannot continue to buy beyond 2022 because it uses the Russian-built RD-180 engines.
“The BE-4 engine has been late for a long time,” said Bongiovi. “Now we need to make sure we’ve got good focus on keeping it on track from here on out, and that’s what we’ve been working on.”
After winning 60 percent of the NSSL Phase 2 missions, ULA was assigned four to be launched on a Vulcan vehicle in 2022 and 2023. The first one was switched to the Atlas 5 as it became clear that Vulcan would not be certified in time to launch NSSL missions in 2022. Certification requires two successful orbital launches.
ULA said it plans to get Vulcan certified by 2023 so it can launch the other three NSSL missions Vulcan has been assigned to date.
The vehicle now faces a “compressed schedule,” Bongiovi said. “But I don’t stay awake at night worrying” about how these three missions will get to orbit. “They will get to orbit,” Bongiovi said.
Bongiovi echoed the response Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall gave Aug. 24 on the question of what Vulcan delays mean for national security space launch. Kendall noted that NSSL has two providers so there’s another option to get satellites to orbit when one of them is not able to launch.
“We’re following the strategy,” said Bongiovi.
Conceivably SpaceX could take on additional missions if needed “but that’s not a place that, frankly, I want to go,” he said. “I’m committed to both these companies. And I think both these companies are going to be very important to have in operations … and we’re working towards making that transition.”
With regard to the BE-4 engine, “It’s unfortunate where the schedule is,” he said. “We just have to be very focused from here on out, and get through the rest of the development so we have the vehicles we need for the three launches that we have on order.”
Vulcan design ‘innovative’
Bongiovi said he gets regular updates on BE-4 test data collected at Blue Origin’s testing facility in West Texas. The engine is being developed with government funding and the Space Force has access to all the test data, he said. The delays are due to a “multitude of reasons, some of them reasonable for development programs, some of them not as reasonable,” he said, although he declined to discuss specific issues.
“The engine is late but it is performing well. It really is,” he added. “It has a lot of runtime, it’s demonstrated its performance. Sometimes you can get in these negatives swirls and not realize how much is going well,” Bongiovi said.
He described Vulcan as an “incredibly innovative” vehicle designed to fly all the required national security missions with a single core. “There’s no three-core variant of Vulcan, it can do everything, including our most complex missions done by Delta 4 Heavy or Falcon Heavy, it can do that with a single core.”
Bongiovi also credited ULA for building Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral to be used interchangeably for Atlas 5 and Vulcan launches without major reconfigurations. “That’s huge in this transition.”
“There’s a lot of great things going on with Vulcan,” he commented. “Right now there’s a booster that’s rolling to the pad for tanking tests.”
ULA reported last week it plans to conduct a series of fueling tests in the coming weeks to validate the launch pad infrastructure, evaluate countdown procedures and train the launch team in advance of the inaugural Vulcan mission.