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Blue Origin space venture fires up BE-4 rocket engine, marking a win for Jeff Bezos

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Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine blasts through its initial hot-fire test. (Blue Origin via Twitter)

Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says it has successfully test-fired its BE-4 rocket engine, marking a key step in the development of its own New Glenn rocket as well as United Launch Alliance’s next-generation rocket.

Billions of dollars are at stake in the BE-4 project, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno told GeekWire last year.

ULA has been waiting for months to get good news about the BE-4 tests in West Texas. The company wanted to see a successful full-scale test before going ahead with plans to use the BE-4 engine on its Vulcan rocket, which is due to have its first flight in 2019.

A Blue Origin competitor, Aerojet Rocketdyne, has been waiting in the wings with its AR1 engine, which ULA saw as a “Plan B” for the Vulcan in case the BE-4 faltered. Wednesday’s initial hot-firing didn’t reach full power or full duration, but the test’s success nevertheless reduces the likelihood that ULA would turn to the AR1.

The hot firing came as particularly welcome news to Blue Origin after the company lost a set of powerpack hardware during an earlier round of tests in May.

“There was a very, very good party in West Texas last night,” Blue Origin software engineer Brandon Haber said today in a tweet.

ULA’s Bruno, meanwhile, tweeted his congratulations.

Bezos was in Texas this week for the inauguration of an Amazon wind farm about 300 miles from Blue Origin’s test site, and he clearly kept close track of Wednesday’s engine firing as well.

First hotfire of our BE-4 engine is a success. Huge kudos to the whole @BlueOrigin team for this important step! #GradatimFerociter pic.twitter.com/0gk6k6WuPx

— Jeff Bezos (@JeffBezos) October 19, 2017

Phil Larson, a former White House aide and SpaceX spokesman who is now an assistant dean of engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said the successful test was a milestone for Blue Origin and commercial space ventures — and evoked one of former Vice President Joe Biden’s classic euphemisms in the process.

“As Joe Biden would say, this is a BFD for the space industry — and goes to show we’re accelerating into the moment where commercial space is driving our national space infrastructure,” Larson said in a text.

The BE-4 engine, which uses liquefied natural gas as fuel, is built at Blue Origin’s production facility in Kent, Wash., and shipped down to Texas for testing. Assuming that it’s accepted for ULA’s use, engine production will eventually shift to a factory in Huntsville, Ala.

Engines for the orbital-class New Glenn rocket will go to Blue Origin’s rocket factory in Florida, which is due to be completed by the end of this year.

The New Glenn is due to start flying by 2020, and Blue Origin already has signed up several commercial customers for satellite launches in the early 2020s. Bezos also wants to use the rocket for national security launches and, potentially, for NASA missions to the moon.

The BE-4 is designed to deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust, and seven of the engines would be used on the New Glenn’s first stage for total liftoff thrust of 3.9 million pounds. That would give it more power than SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket (1.7 million pounds), but not as much as the Falcon Heavy (5.1 million pounds), which is due for its maiden flight within the next few months.

Blue Origin has been working on the BE-4 for five years, but if the pace of development picks up as expected, Bezos’ space venture could tighten up the competition with SpaceX and its billionaire founder, Elon Musk. The Amazon founder sums up his approach in Blue Origin’s Latin motto, “Gradatim Ferociter,” which translates as “Step by Step, Ferociously.”

In addition to New Glenn, Blue Origin is testing a suborbital spaceship known as New Shepard, which uses a 110,000-pound-thrust, hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine. A now-retired New Shepard craft made five successful test flights to space and back, and Blue Origin is gearing up to resume uncrewed testing with an upgraded New Shepard by the end of the year. If all goes according to plan, passengers could start taking suborbital space trips within a year or so.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 wasn’t the only rocket engine facing a big test this week: Today NASA fired up an Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engine for eight minutes at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, as part of the certification process for its heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket.

The engine was assembled from hardware left over from the space shuttle program. Eventually, four of the 512.000-pound-thrust RS-25 engines, based on a design adapted from the shuttle’s main engines, will be installed on the SLS for launch in 2019.

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