Blue Origin Was Doomed from the Start

In 2018, Blue Origin paid consultants to tell them how to copy the success of SpaceX. Ars Technica reviewed the consultant’s advice and findings about rapid iterative testing and how motivated SpaceX employees were. There were other comments about customer focus and focus on achieving low cost.

However, the main Blue Origin problems were no cheap orbital engine and going for a man-rated market first. They did not choose to rapidly develop a useful, low-cost orbital-class rocket engine. Blue Origin first targeted the development of a suborbital man-rated system. Going suborbital meant that unless they made it safe enough for people then there was no other meaningful suborbital market. This was the same issue for Virgin Galactic. They thought man-rating sub-orbital would be faster and easier than going orbital with cargo. They were both wrong and were doomed from the start with bad goals and the wrong plan.

The culture and people problems have made things much, much worse. However, the plans were wrong from the beginning. The plan did not involve making a lot of cheap engines and using those for many cheap rockets and having customers wanting to use the capabilities of those cheap rockets.

The failing rocket companies are not making a lot of rocket engines and are not launching a lot of rockets with engines they have made.

The plans should involve
* design a low-cost orbital engine that is as simple as possible
* test your engines as soon as possible
* test often, build a lot and build low cost
* launch a lot and launch often
* work on landing the first stage while launching paid payloads to orbit

United Launch Alliance developed the Atlas V rocket back in 2002 and it used a Russian built main engine. Aerojet Rocketdyne developed the RS-68 engine for the Delta IV rocket. This was a simplified version of the Shuttle main engine. Work on the RS-68 started in the 1990s and completed in about 2001. The Delta IV first launched a payload in 2002.

SpaceX and Rocket Labs both developed smaller and simpler orbital-class engines first and then made hundreds of those engines. Blue Origin took ten years before they started developing the BE-3 engine. The BE-3 was big enough to go to orbit but Blue Origin did not design it as a low-cost orbital engine and did not put it into a rocket intended to reach orbit.

Relativity Space started in 2015 and is trying to get its first rocket to orbit in 2022.

SpaceX would start development of a Merlin engine and got it flying in about two years.

The Merlin 1A, used an inexpensive, expendable, ablatively cooled carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer composite nozzle and produced 340 kN (76,000 lbf) of thrust. The Merlin 1A flew only twice: March 24, 2006 (Caught fire and failed shortly after launch) and the second time on March 21, 2007, when it performed successfully. Both times the Merlin 1A was mounted on a Falcon 1 first stage.

Initial use of the Merlin 1B was to be on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle, on whose first stage there would have been a cluster of nine of these engines. Due to experience from the Falcon 1’s first flight, SpaceX moved its Merlin development to the Merlin 1C, which is regeneratively cooled. Therefore, the Merlin 1B was never used on a launch vehicle.

Three versions of the Merlin 1C engine were produced. The Merlin 1C uses a regeneratively cooled nozzle and combustion chamber. The turbopump used is a Merlin 1B model with only slight alterations. It was fired with a full mission duty firing of 170 seconds in November 2007 first flew on a mission in August 2008.

The Merlin 1D engine was developed by SpaceX between 2011 and 2012, with first flight in 2013. The design goals for the new engine included increased reliability, improved performance, and improved manufacturability. In 2011, performance goals for the engine were a vacuum thrust of 690 kN (155,000 lbf), a vacuum specific impulse (Isp) of 310 s (3.0 km/s), an expansion ratio of 16 (as opposed to the previous 14.5 of the Merlin 1C) and chamber pressure in the “sweet spot” of 9.7 MPa (1,410 psi).

By August 2011, SpaceX was producing Merlin engines at the rate of eight per month, planning eventually to raise production to about 33 engines per month. By 2015, they were making 250 Merlin engines per week.

Rocket Labs started in 2006 and reached orbit in 2018 by launching some cubesats.

The Rocket Labs Rutherford engine sea-level version produces 24.9 kN (5,600 lbf) of thrust and has a specific impulse of 311 s (3.05 km/s), while the vacuum optimized-version produces 25.8 kN (5,800 lbf) of thrust and has a specific impulse of 343 s (3.36 km/s).

First test-firing for the Rocket Lab Rutherford took place in 2013. The engine was qualified for flight in March 2016 and had its first flight on 25 May 2017. As of July 2021, the engine has powered 21 Electron flights in total, making the count of flown engines 210.

In February 2020, Blue Origin opened up a factory in Huntsville, Alabama, to produce BE-3U and BE-4 engines

The Blue Origin BE-3 engine began development in the early 2010s and completed acceptance testing in early 2015. The engine is being used on the New Shepard suborbital rocket, for which test flights began in 2015 and a first crewed flight occurred in 2021. The engine was under consideration by United Launch Alliance (ULA) for use in a new second stage. The BE-3 has 160,000 lbf (80 tons of thrust).

There needed to be a variant of the BE-3 for an orbital class small rocket.Blue Origin needed to make and test a lot of BE-3 class engines and get to orbit by 2012-2014.

Blue Origin began work on the BE-4 engine in 2011. This is their first engine to combust liquid oxygen and liquified natural gas propellants. In September 2014, United Launch Alliance selected the BE-4 as the main engine for a new primary launch vehicle. Blue Origin said the “BE-4 would be ‘ready for flight’ by 2017.

As of April 2015, the engine development work was being carried out in two parallel programs. One program is testing full-scale versions of the BE-4 powerpack, which are the set of valves and turbopumps that provide the proper fuel/oxidizer mix to the injectors and combustion chamber. The second program is testing subscale versions of the engine’s injectors. In February 2020, Blue Origin opened up a factory in Huntsville, Alabama, to produce BE-3U and BE-4 engines

The BE-4 has 240 tons of thrust.

Blue Origin Launches

SpaceX Launch Summary

SOURCES – Blue Origin, spaceX
Written by Brian Wang,

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