The Air Force’s plan for developing next-generation launch vehicles has been dealt a setback with the explosion during testing of a key component on the Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and teamed with United Launch Alliance — the main provider of military launch services — in developing the methane-powered BE-4. Because the Air Force is operating under a congressional mandate to cease using Russian rocket engines on military launches as soon as possible, it is under pressure to find a replacement launch vehicle and engine as soon as possible. The workhorse of the current rocket fleet, Atlas V, uses a Russian RD-180 engine in its first stage. BE-4 had looked like the frontrunner to replace the RD-180, installed on a new ULA launch vehicle dubbed Vulcan. In the aftermath of the Blue Origin mishap, though, the Air Force says it intends to keep funding the competing AR-1 engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne. AR-1 could be installed on either Atlas V or Vulcan. If Blue Origin’s more complicated BE-4 engine doesn’t pan out, Aerojet’s AR-1 could become the best hope for weaning the military space program off Russian engines quickly. I have written a commentary for Forbes here.
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