Since 2011, Jeff Bezos’ spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has worked tirelessly to build its own engine that could power rockets heading up into space, all without investment from federal contracts. The work finally reached a milestone last week, when the company announced it had successfully conducted a hot-fire test of its BE-4 engine. (A hot-fire test is a first run that shows the engine can actually ignite and potentially power a rocket toward outer space.)
Firing at 50 percent power for three seconds, the BE-4—still second to Rocketdyne’s RS-68 engine in terms of power but much cheaper to build—is proof positive the commercial space industry could be an incredibly important driver in shaping space policy and operations for the country. “I think this is going to send shock waves” through the industry, says Ellen Stofan, NASA’s former chief scientist. “These guys [at Blue Origin] are serious. They’ve put their money where their mouth is.”
That’s not an overstatement.* The BE-4 could play a significant role solving two of the space industry’s most pressing problems.
First, most of the industry’s rocket engines are the result of heavy federal contracts that subsidize the cost it takes to design, build, test, and manufacture them. Blue Origin’s rival SpaceX is an exception—it managed to build its Merlin rocket engine mostly through its own accord. That is the engine that helps launch the reusable Falcon 9 rocket up into space and then helps bring it back down to Earth for a sweet landing.
If the SpaceX engines work so well, then why is Blue Origin trying to compete with them? Merlins aren’t exactly the most powerful engines, nor are they designed for installation on other types of space rockets outside the Falcon 9 and upcoming Falcon Heavy rockets.
In contrast, Blue Origin’s BE-4 is more powerful and can be installed on other launch platforms. That’s actually the goal: According to a previous agreement pending successful testing, United Launch Alliance plans to buy and use BE-4 engines on its new Vulcan rocket, set to debut sometime in 2019.
That brings us to the second issue the BE-4 solves: weening the space industry off Russian-made rockets. The current rocket of choice for sending payloads into Earth’s orbit is the Atlas V, because it’s pretty affordable to build and launch. However, the Atlas V uses Russian-made RD-180 engines—a pain point for the U.S. government, especially when it needs to send military assets into orbit.
Replacing the Russian-made engines with the BE-4 solves this problem. Blue Origin’s success in this area also means that more companies might take up their own endeavors to manufacture rocket engines on U.S. soil as well. “All of a sudden,” says Stofan, “not only do we have one potential option for rockets, we have multiple.”
As with any other field, increased competition means lowered prices—and in the space industry, this has larger consequences. With private industry becoming increasingly capable of producing its own engines at an affordable rate, the need for government intervention and subsidization is increasingly irrelevant. Those three seconds of fire pummeling out of a hunk of metal might actually go down as a pivot point for American space policy.
*Correction, Nov. 1, 2017: This article originally misstated that Stofan’s comment about Blue Origin was not an understatement. It was not an overstatement. (Return.)