Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine explodes during testing

  • Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin suffered a rocket engine explosion while testing its BE-4 rocket engine last month, CNBC has learned.
  • During a June 30 launch at Blue Origin’s West Texas facility, a BE-4 engine detonated about 10 seconds into the test.
  • A Blue Origin spokesperson confirmed the incident, noting that no personnel were injured and that an investigation is underway, with a “proximate cause”[ads1]; identified.

A test of a BE-4 engine at the company’s Launch Site One facility in West Texas on August 2, 2019.

Blue origin

A Blue Origin rocket engine exploded during testing last month, CNBC has learned, a destructive setback with potential consequences for the company’s customers as well as its own rocket.

During a June 30 launch at a West Texas facility of Jeff Bezos’ space company, a BE-4 engine detonated about 10 seconds into the test, according to several people familiar with the matter. These people described seeing video of a dramatic explosion that destroyed the engine and severely damaged the test stand’s infrastructure.

The people spoke to CNBC on condition of anonymity to discuss non-public matters.

The engine that exploded was expected to be fully tested in July. It was then scheduled to be shipped to Blue Origin’s customer United Launch Alliance for use on ULA’s second Vulcan rocket launch, these people said.

A spokesperson for Blue Origin confirmed in a statement to CNBC on Tuesday that the company “ran into a problem while testing Vulcan’s Flight Engine 3.”

“No personnel were injured and we are currently evaluating the root cause,” Blue Origin said, adding that “we already have the proximate cause and are working on corrective actions.”

The company noted that it “immediately” made customer ULA aware of the incident. ULA is the rocket-building joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which primarily competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX – especially when it comes to the most lucrative military launch contracts.

Blue Origin also said it will be able to “continue testing” engines in West Texas. The company has previously built two racks for the tests.

“We will be able to meet our engine delivery commitments this year and stay ahead of our customers’ launch needs,” Blue Origin added.

The BE-4’s test failure threatens to push back the already delayed first Vulcan launch — which was recently pushed back to the fourth quarter of this year — while Blue Origin investigates the cause of the problem.

Each Vulcan rocket uses a pair of BE-4 engines for launch. ULA anxiously waited for years to receive delivery of the first set. A month ago, ULA completed a major milestone in preparation for the first Vulcan launch, known as “Cert-1,” with a brief static fire test of the rocket using the first pair of BE-4 jet engines.

In a statement to CNBC, a ULA spokesperson said that “the BE-4 test issue is not expected to affect our plans for the Vulcan Cert-1 mission.” The company noted that the engines for Cert-1 “passed acceptance testing” and are eligible for launch.

The Vulcan rocket for the Cert-1 mission stands at SLC-41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida during testing on May 12, 2023.

United Launch Alliance

As ULA’s “Cert” mission name implies, the company must successfully launch two Vulcans to complete the US Space Force’s certification of the rocket for operational flights. With ULA set to retire its current operational rockets, the Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy, the company needs the Vulcan certified as soon as possible to begin flying national security missions.

Last month, the Space Force awarded SpaceX and ULA each with six missions under the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 program. All six of ULA’s NSSL missions will fly on Vulcan. In addition, ULA is preparing to bid for phase 3 contracts under the NSSL, with the space force welcoming increased competition.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 incident 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, requiring ULA to partially dismantle the first Vulcan rocket to reinforce the upper stage that had already been installed.

While ULA determined the problem would be fairly easy to fix, it is now testing a change to the thickness of the upper stage’s steel walls to ensure the solution is sufficient before the company reinstalls an improved version.

While Blue Origin needs to get the BE-4 working well and humming off the production line for its main customer, the company also needs the engines for its own reusable New Glenn rocket under development.

While the Vulcan uses two BE-4 engines, each New Glenn rocket requires seven BE-4 engines — meaning Blue Origin must produce dozens a year to support both rockets.

Vulcan and New Glenn are both under contract to fly satellites for another Bezos-founded company, Amazon. The major commercial launch deal saw Amazon order 38 Vulcan launches and up to 27 New Glenn launches 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 simulator version of a New Glenn rocket is being moved for testing in November 2021.

Blue origin

The BE-4, the centerpiece of Blue Origin’s stable of rocket engines, was supposed to be ready by 2017, but a myriad of development problems have meant the company only finished the first flight-ready engines recently.

Similarly, New Glenn was originally slated for its first flight in 2020. But delays have changed that timeline to unknown, with Blue Origin management in recent public appearances declining to comment on a new debut launch target for New Glenn.

Blue Origin opened a large engine manufacturing plant in Huntsville, Alabama in 2020, expanding its facilities in the area to about 1 million square feet. NASA leased engine test stands at the Marshall Space Flight Center to Blue Origin. The company is testing its smaller BE-7 lunar lander engine there, while restoring a larger NASA rack for BE-4 testing at the test facility in Texas.

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