Tags: Bezos | Boeing-Lockheed | NASA | Rocket

Bezos Teams with Boeing-Lockheed to Develop New NASA Rocket Engine

Wednesday, 17 September 2014 06:03 PM

The spaceflight company backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos will team up with a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture to develop a U.S. alternative to Russian-made rocket engines.

The partnership between United Launch Alliance and Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC has set a multiyear development schedule, with full testing to begin in 2016 and a first flight in 2019, the companies said in a statement today. The Boeing-Lockheed venture currently handles all U.S. military satellite launches.

The announcement pits Bezos, 50, against fellow billionaire Elon Musk, the Tesla Motors Inc. founder who is developing a rocket and capsule through his Space Exploration Technologies Corp. business. The competition has been brewing for years and has intensified as availability of the Russian-made RD-180 engines commonly used in U.S. space launches is being threatened by diplomatic tensions over Russia’s conflict with Ukraine.

“It’s time for a 21st century booster engine,” Bezos, the founder of retailer Amazon.com Inc., said at a news conference Wednesday in Washington. The engine will be 100 percent designed, engineered, built and tested in the U.S., he said.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine is fully funded and has been under development for three years, Bezos said. The high-performing, low-cost engine can be accelerated into production because of work that’s already been done, he said.

Manned Missions

The competition is bigger than launching satellites. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration yesterday said Boeing and SpaceX would split $6.8 billion in federal funding to build the first U.S. manned craft since NASA retired the shuttle fleet in 2011. In 2017, the Boeing and SpaceX crafts would replace NASA’s sole use of Russia’s Soyuz rockets to get people to the station, an arrangement that costs about $70 million a seat.

United Launch Alliance uses in some of its flights Atlas V rockets, which rely on the RD-180 engine. U.S. dependence on a Russian-made engine has prompted criticism in Congress since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region earlier this year.

The BE-4 engine won’t directly replace the RD-180, because the new engines will be used on the next generation of United Launch Alliance rockets, the companies said in a statement.

“There is no way to rush the rocket-development process,” Bezos said. “You can’t cut corners. It needs to be methodical and deliberate.”

United Launch Alliance will be investing directly to fund jointly the BE-4’s development, Bezos said. There’s no equity involved in the deal, he said, declining to give a dollar figure on the investment.

Economic Sanctions

The engine’s costs are proprietary, the companies said in a statement.

The U.S. and the European Union have imposed economic sanctions on Russia in an attempt to get President Vladimir Putin to back down. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin hinted in May that his country would cut off the supply of the engines to the U.S. in retaliation for the diplomatic tensions.

In April he suggested via Twitter that the U.S. consider sending crews to space “with a trampoline.”

The NASA contract to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station will pay a maximum of $4.2 billion to Boeing and $2.6 billion to closely held SpaceX. Boeing and SpaceX may each conduct as many as six missions as part of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability contract, NASA said.

Space Launches

Wednesday’s deal with Blue Origin is an important milestone in the effort to reduce costs and bring new technologies into engine development, said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive officer of United Launch Alliance.

“We are excited to bring together the best minds in engineering, supply chain management and commercial business practices to create an all-new affordable, reliable American rocket engine,” Bruno said.

NASA said Tuesday it will continue to work with Blue Origin and another spaceflight company, Sierra Nevada, as they refine spacecraft designs.

Boeing was a crucial partner in NASA’s Apollo and shuttle programs, and the United Launch Alliance has an exclusive contract to carry U.S. military payloads.

Last month, the U.S. Air Force issued a “request for information” from industry on potential options to replace the RD-180 engine.

For now, Russian and American astronauts continue to train together for Soyuz missions amid strained ties between the two countries.

Expedited Review

General John Hyten, head of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, told reporters today he wants SpaceX certified “as soon as humanly possible.” The move would allow Musk’s company to compete with United Launch Alliance.

The goal is to have SpaceX certified for military launches by December, Hyten said. The Air Force has 151 people doing the review, he said.

U.S. astronauts are slated to blast off for the space station in Russian launch vehicles on Sept. 25 and Nov. 23, according to a schedule posted on NASA’s website.

Bezos, who is also the new owner of the Washington Post newspaper, is No. 21 on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, a ranking of the world’s wealthiest people, with an estimated net worth of $30 billion. Musk, 43, is ranked at No. 93 with a net worth of about $12.3 billion.

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The spaceflight company backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos will team up with a Boeing Co.-Lockheed Martin Corp. venture to develop a U.S. alternative to Russian-made rocket engines.
Bezos, Boeing-Lockheed, NASA, Rocket
Wednesday, 17 September 2014 06:03 PM
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