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ULA teams with Bezos' Blue Origin for new rocket engine

United Launch Alliance, builder of workhorse Atlas and Delta rockets, is partnering with Amazon-founder Jeff Bezos' secretive Blue Origin company to develop a powerful new rocket engine that eventually could replace the Russian-built RD-180 engine used by ULA's Atlas boosters, company officials said Wednesday.

"I think it's pretty clear it's time for a 21st century booster engine," Bezos said during a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. "The great engines of the past were truly remarkable machines in their own right ... but we have tools and capabilities, software simulations, computational horsepower that the builders of those great engines could have only dreamed about.

"We can build an engine today that is a 21st century engine that has great reliability, low cost of operations and high performance," he said. "And we're super excited about that, and we couldn't be more excited to have a partner like ULA."

United Launch Alliance is a partnership between Boeing, designer of the Delta family of rockets, and Lockheed Martin, which developed the venerable Atlas family of boosters. Both are used to launch national security payloads, NASA planetary probes and occasional commercial satellites.

The Delta 4 uses U.S. propulsion technology while the first stage of the Atlas 5 relies on the Russian RD-180 engine, a high-performance oxygen-kerosene burning power plant that generates 860,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.

Elon Musk, chairman and chief designer of rival rocket builder SpaceX, has launched a wide ranging attack on the Atlas 5 and its use of Russian propulsion technology, arguing uncertain politics and increasing discord between the United States and Russia put downstream missions at risk.

He also has filed a lawsuit challenging an Air Force block-buy contract with ULA, claiming his company's Falcon 9 rocket was unfairly excluded from consideration.

In the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, a review panel charted by the Pentagon recommended replacing the RD-180, but estimated it could take up to seven years to develop.

Enter the Blue Engine 4, or BE-4, under development for the past three years at Blue Origin.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos looks to the future

"We have been off studying what the next generation of our Atlas and Delta launch vehicle family should look like," said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance. "We've conducted thorough trades and I am now here very excited and proud to tell you that we have selected Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos to be our partners going forward.

"As we make space even more affordable, more accessible to everyone, it's going to change the world," he said. "We are going to do for space and your lives what the internet has done for the information age. That's our vision for the future."

Bruno said ULA chose Blue Origin for the engine development project after carrying out an exhaustive assessment of current domestic engine technologies and providers.

"We cast a pretty wide net, we went to everybody in the industry," Bruno said. "We selected Blue for a couple of reasons. First, they are way ahead. They have this innovative technology. Of course, this is rocketry and I have contingency plans, but this is my partner, and I'm expecting Jeff to succeed."

Bezos said Blue Origin has logged more than 10,000 seconds firing time on the company's less powerful BE-3 engine, gaining valuable experience and performance data. Component testing for the BE-4 is well underway and the company has built a massive test stand at its facility near Van Horn, Texas, for engine firings.

"The BE-4 engine is a remarkable machine," Bezos said. "It's 550,000 pounds of thrust, it has a very low recurring cost and low life-cycle cost. Cost to space is a very important factor, so basically cost and reliability are the two driving factors. The BE-4 uses commercially available fuel, it's liquified natural gas, it's reusable and it's built and tested and designed and engineered 100 percent in the United States."

If all goes well, ULA plans to incorporate two BE-4s in the first stage of a redesigned Atlas 5 to generate 1.1 million pounds of liftoff thrust.

The new engine will be developed and flight tested in parallel with ongoing Atlas 5 flights using the RD-180. A joint ULA-Blue Origin statement said full-scale testing of the new engine will begin in 2016 with initial flight tests in 2019.

"The BE-4 is not a one-for-one replacement for the RD-180, which is a kerosene-burning engine," Bruno said. "What we intend to do is use a pair of these on our baseline Atlas vehicle. It would provide higher performance than what we have now. The RD-180 is a great engine, it's a real workhorse, it's reliable, it's high performance, but this is an opportunity to really jump into the 21st century with modern technology so we can achieve more performance at a lower cost."

He said it typically takes seven years to develop a new engine, sometimes longer. But Blue Origin "is already several years into that cycle."

"So by partnering with them, we have an opportunity to really cut that cycle in half, which means that about four years from now, we would be in a position to begin flying rockets with this engine technology," Bruno said.

Bruno and Bezos would not provide any cost estimates or projections beyond saying the BE-4 is expected to be substantially less expensive than current engines.

"There's no equity changing hands," Bezos said of the partnership with United Launch Alliance. "ULA is making a very significant investment in the engine development, which we're not disclosing what that investment level is, and Blue Origin is committing to finish the engine."

Asked again about cost, Bezos said "our goal is to make the engine so low cost, so reliable, ULA would be crazy to use anything else."