ULA selects Blue Origin engines for Vulcan rocket in boost for Alabama

ULA selects Blue Origin engines for Vulcan rocket in boost for Alabama
Blue Origin's BE-4 rocket engine will be manufactured in Huntsville, not far away from the United Launch Alliance's rocket plant in Decatur. (Blue Origin)

United Launch Alliance has selected Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine to power ULA’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, a development that boosts Alabama’s growing aerospace industry and extends the state’s leadership position in rocketry.

ULA, which produces Atlas V and Delta IV rockets at a facility in Decatur, said the Blue Origin engine will be used in the booster stage of the new launch vehicle, which will be assembled at the Alabama plant. The $200 million project is expected to create up to 342 jobs.

Blue Origin, the space company founded by businessman Jeff Bezos, announced plans in 2017 to open a factory in Huntsville to manufacture the BE-4.

“I am pleased to learn that ULA has selected Blue Origin, and new investments will be made in Alabama to expand our growing aerospace industry,” Gov. Kay Ivey said.

“Alabama has a rich history in aerospace, and titans of innovation continue to choose Alabama as the place to develop new technology and develop 21st century engines for future space utilization. I am excited about our new partnership with Blue Origin and their commitment to our state,” she said.

The Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine is put through a test. (Blue Origin)

Rocket development

Colorado-based ULA said it is making strong progress in the development of the Vulcan Centaur, which is on track for its initial test flight in mid-2020. It said new rocket design is nearing completion, with booster preliminary design and critical design reviews already complete.

“We are pleased to enter into this partnership with Blue Origin and look forward to a successful first flight of our next-generation launch vehicle,” said Tory Bruno, ULA’s president and CEO.

ULA said the new rocket’s booster will be powered by a pair of BE-4 engines, each producing 550,000 pounds of thrust. It said the Vulcan Centaur will have greater capabilities to lift payloads into orbit than any currently available single-core launch vehicle.

Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said ULA’s Vulcan Centaur rocket and Blue Origin’s engines will transmit a strong message around the globe about the capabilities of Alabama’s aerospace manufacturing sector.

“The United Launch Alliance and Blue Origin are teaming to make a next-generation rocket a reality, and it will have deep roots in Alabama’s aerospace industry,” Canfield said.

“Located just a few miles from the ULA assembly facility in Decatur, Blue Origin’s rocket engine manufacturing facility will be right at home in Huntsville, a hub of innovation for this industry for decades.”

This rendering shows United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket, a next-generation launch system that will be powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. (ULA)

BE-4 engines

When Blue Origin announced plans for its Huntsville facility in June 2017, the company said the project would get underway as soon as ULA awarded it a contract. Cummings Research Park, the nation’s second-largest research park, will be home to the Blue Origin facility.

Blue Origin said it chose Huntsville for this project because of its high-tech aerospace manufacturing workforce and ecosystem, including NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, nearly 300 private aerospace and defense contractors, and the University of Alabama in Huntsville, a top university for NASA research funding.

“Congratulations to United Launch Alliance and to Blue Origin. After a lengthy due diligence period by ULA, today’s announcement marks the beginning of U.S. independence for a variety of space travel missions to include future deep space voyages,” Mayor Tommy Battle said.

“Huntsville is proud that both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne will play a major role in ULA’s production of the Vulcan Centaur rocket. Huntsville led the U.S. propulsion revolution in the ’60s, and we continue to do so with a thriving industry of rocket scientists and rocket producers.

“This is what we do better than anyone else in the world.”

ULA said Aerojet Rocketdyne, which has a major presence in Huntsville, will provide RL10 engines for the Centaur upper stage.

ULA said the Vulcan Centaur will boost U.S. manufacturing by adding more than 22,000 direct and indirect American jobs in 46 states supported by ULA programs. The company has made modifications to the 1.6-million-square-foot facility in Decatur, which employs more than 600 workers and has produced large rockets since opening in 1999.

Swiss aerospace company RUAG, which operates within the ULA plant in Decatur, will provide payload fairings and composite structures for the Vulcan Centaur rocket, according to the announcement.

“Today’s announcement is great news for the future of ULA in Morgan County,” said Jeremy Nails, president and CEO of the Morgan County Economic Development Association. “I’m proud of the fact that their next-generation Vulcan rocket is moving forward and will be built in our community.”

This story originally appeared on the Alabama Department of Commerce’s Made in Alabama website.

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