The Boeing Co and Lockheed Matin Corp joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), stated that it will be investing in a new rocket engine, called the BE-4, developed by Jeff Bezos and his company Blue Origin.
Officials from both companies have said that the BE-4 rocket engine has a lot of promise and will cost much less than the Russian RD-180 engine, which is currently used to to power ULA’s heavy-lift Atlas 5 rockets.
It is estimated to be ready in approximately four years time.
Bezos has expressed his excitement to be working on the project with ULA, saying that the engine could help pave the way to a future in which millions of people can easily work in space. The entrepreneur added that ULA is providing significant funding for the development of the engine, adding that the engine could be made in less than seven years.
ULA currently has a 2 year supply of Russian engines and 11 more are to be expected within the next year. He said that despite ULA’s choice to move to a U.S. alternative, he doesn’t expect there to be any problems with the Russian deliveries.
The BE-4 engine will use liquefied natural gas and provide 550,000 pounds of thrust at sea level. Testing has already began for some components of the engine at a facility in Texas.
ULA said that by using two BE-4 engines on each booster there would be a total thrust of more than 1 million pounds, which is higher than the thrust of the RD-180 engine that the Atlas 5 rocket currently uses.
The head of Air Force Space Command, General John Hyten, noted that any new engine has to go through a rigorous certifications process before it can be considered to launch satellites.
ULA is currently under pressure though as it is beginning to face some serious competition from Elon Musk’s firm Space Exploration Technologies (also known as SpaceX). ULA is currently one of the only rocket launch providers for spy satellites and the U.S. military.
SpaceX is planning to produce its own heavy-lift rocket that will directly complete with the ULA’s Atlas 5. The company is also in the midst of seeking certification by the Air Force of its Falcon 9 rocket.
The chief executive of ULA, Tory Bruno, said that it is about time for the US to use an all-American launch vehicle, adding that “I can’t think of a better way to get on that path.”