- CNBC has learned that Jeff Bezos’ aerospace company Blue Origin experienced a rocket engine explosion during a test of its BE-4 rocket engine last month.
- During shooting on June 30 at the Blue Origin facility in West Texas, the BE-4’s engine exploded about 10 seconds into the test.
- A Blue Origin spokesperson confirmed that the accident occurred, stating that no individual was injured and that an investigation is ongoing, with the “proximate cause” determined.
A BE-4 engine test at the company’s Launch Site One facility in West Texas on August 2, 2019.
CNBC has learned that a Blue Origin rocket engine exploded during a test last month, a devastating setback with potential ramifications for the company’s customers as well as its own rocket.
During a June 30 shootout at Jeff Bezos’ space company’s West Texas facility, the BE-4 engine exploded about 10 seconds into the test, according to several people familiar with the matter. These people described seeing video of a massive explosion that destroyed the engine and severely damaged the test stand infrastructure.
People spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity to discuss non-public matters.
Testing of the engine, which exploded, is expected to end in July. It was then destined to be shipped to United Launch Alliance, a Blue Origin customer, those people said, for use in ULA’s Vulcan II rocket launch.
A Blue Origin spokesperson confirmed, in a statement to CNBC on Tuesday, that the company “encountered a problem during Vulcan 3 flight engine testing.”
“No individual was injured, and we are currently evaluating the root cause,” Blue Origin said, adding, “We already have a proximal cause and are working on remedial measures.”
The company indicated that it had reported the incident to its client, ULA, “immediately.” ULA is a joint rocket-building venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin that competes primarily with Elon Musk’s SpaceX — especially head-to-head for the most lucrative military launch contracts.
Blue Origin also said it will be able to “continue testing” the engines in West Texas. The company previously built two test suites.
“We will be able to meet our engine delivery commitments this year and stay ahead of our customers’ launch needs,” added Blue Origin.
A failed BE-4 test threatens to further delay the already-delayed first Vulcan launch — which it was It was recently rescheduled to the fourth quarter From this year – while Blue Origin is examining the cause of the problem.
Each Vulcan missile uses a pair of BE-4 engines for launch. ULA has been waiting anxiously for years to take delivery of the first set. A month ago, ULA completed a major milestone in preparation for the launch of the first Vulcan, known as “Cert-1,” with Short static test firing of the missile Using the first pair of BE-4 aviation engines.
In a statement to CNBC, a ULA spokesperson said “The BE-4 test issue is not expected to affect our plans for the Vulcan Cert-1 mission.” The company noted that the Cert-1 engines have “successfully passed acceptance testing” and are eligible for launch.
A Vulcan missile for the Cert-1 mission stands at SLC-41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida during testing on May 12, 2023.
United Launch Alliance
As the name of ULA’s “Cert” mission suggests, the company needs to successfully launch two Vulcans to complete the US Space Force’s certification of the missile for operational flights. With ULA preparing to retire its currently operational rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy, the company needs to certify the Vulcan as soon as possible to begin national security missions.
Last month, SpaceX and ULA each designated six missions under the Phase II National Security Space Launch Program. All six NSSL missions at ULA are scheduled to fly on Vulcan. In addition, ULA is preparing to bid for Phase 3 contracts under the NSSL, with Space Force welcoming the increased competition.
The BE-4 incident at Blue Origin comes after ULA spent three months investigating its own test explosion. In March, a separate part of the rocket – known as the upper stage – exploded during a structural test and required ULA to partially dismantle the first Vulcan rocket to reinforce the already installed upper stage.
While ULA decided the problem would be fairly easy to fix, it is now testing a change in the thickness of the upper stage’s steel walls to ensure the solution is sufficient before the company reinstalls an improved version.
At the same time that Blue Origin needs to get the BE-4 well off and off the production line for its major customer, the company also needs engines for its New Glenn reusable rocket which is in development.
While the Vulcan uses two BE-4 engines, each New Glenn missile requires seven BE-4 engines — which means Blue Origin needs to produce dozens a year to support both missiles.
Both Vulcan and New Glenn are under contract to fly satellites for another company founded by Bezos, Amazon. The blockbuster commercial launch deal saw Amazon launch 38 launches of Vulcan and up to 27 launches of New Glenn to fly its Project Kuiper internet satellites over the next few years.
Blue Origin also plans to use New Glenn to fly the lunar lander it is developing under a $3.4 billion NASA contract.
A mass simulation version of the New Glenn missile was flown for testing in November 2021.
The BE-4, Blue Origin’s rocket engine centerpiece, was supposed to be ready by 2017, but a myriad of development issues meant the company finished its first ready-to-fly engines recently.
Likewise, New Glen was originally slated for its inaugural flight in 2020. But delays have changed that schedule to an unknown, with Blue Origin’s leadership at a recent public appearance refusing to comment on a new launch target for New Glen.
Blue Origin opened a major engine production plant in Huntsville, Alabama in 2020 and has It expanded its facilities in the region to about a million square feet. A test engine leased from NASA stands at Marshall Space Flight Center to Blue Origin. The company is testing the smaller BE-7 lunar lander engine there, while restoring a larger NASA platform for BE-4 testing at its test facility in Texas.
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