Blue Origin, ULA and Aerojet win Air Force contracts for U.S.-made rocket engines

Blue Origin, the rocket venture founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, is among the beneficiaries in a set of Air Force contracts aimed at developing U.S.-made replacements for the Russian-made engines that currently power many of America’s space missions.

One of the contracts announced today is going to United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin’s partner in the BE-4 rocket engine development effort. The Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center said the BE-4 project would receive an initial investment of $46.6 million. Another $800,000 would go toward development of the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES.

ULA plans to use Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine on its next-generation Vulcan rocket, which is designed to be partially reusable. The ACES propulsion system would eventually be used on the Vulcan’s upper stage.

Blue Origin has its headquarters in Kent, Wash., and much of the company’s rocket development work was done there. Engine testing already has started at Blue Origin’s West Texas operation. The two companies say development of the BE-4 is fully funded by Blue Origin, with investment by ULA.

The Vulcan is expected to start flying in 2019, but the ACES system won’t be ready until sometime in the 2020s. In the interim, ULA would use its existing Centaur upper stage with the Vulcan’s BE-4-powered first stage.

Aerojet Rocketdyne also received an Air Force contract today to support the development of its kerosene-fueled AR-1 engine. The initial award to Aerojet amounts to $115.3 million, the Space and Missile Systems Center said.

The Air Force funding is part of a bigger effort to produce alternatives to the Russian-made RD-180 engines. Currently, the RD-180s are essential components for ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, which is one of the workhorses for national security launches. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, Congress set strict limits on the use of the RD-180s and required the Air Force to pursue the development of replacements.

The Air Force awarded a similar round of rocket development contracts to SpaceX and Orbital ATK last month. Those initial awards were $33.6 million for SpaceX, and $46.9 million for Orbital ATK. In all four cases, the eventual investment is expected to amount to significantly more than the Air Force’s initial awards.

“Having two or more domestic, commercially viable launch providers that also meet national security space requirements continues to be our end goal,” Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the Air Force’s program executive officer for space and the Space and Missile System’s commander, said in a news release. “These innovative public-private partnerships with industry as they develop their rocket propulsion systems are a key part of the EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] acquisition strategy to assure access to space and address the urgent need to transition away from strategic foreign reliance.”

AR1 rocket engine
A computer graphic shows the design for Aerojet’s AR1 rocket engine. (Credit: Aerojet Rocketdyne)
ULA and Aerojet issued their own news releases hailing the deals. ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno was quoted as saying “now is the right time for American investment in a domestic engine.” Although ULA has Blue Origin as its primary partner, Bruno noted that his company was also working with Aerojet on a backup plan to use the AR1 engine on the Vulcan.

Eileen Drake, Aerojet’s president and CEO, said today’s award from the federal government “demonstrates its support of AR1 and recognizes the priority of assured access to space for our critical national security assets.”

In addition to the Air Force’s award, ULA and Aerojet are to make an initial investment of $57.7 million in the AR1. Aerojet said the total potential government investment, including all options, would be $536 million. The total potential investment from Aerojet and its partners is $268 million. The first AR-1 engine is scheduled for delivery in 2019, with launch set for 2020.

Drake said the AR-1 engine would be “available for use on the Atlas 5, Vulcan and other launch vehicles currently in development.”

Aerojet is based in Sacramento, Calif., but also has facilities in Redmond, Wash. ULA is a joint venture involving the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin.

GeekWire contributing editor Alan Boyle is an award-winning science writer and veteran space reporter. Formerly of, he is the author of “The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference.” Follow him via, on Twitter @b0yle, and on Facebook and MeWe. Reach him via email at
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