Bezos Unveils New Engine for Military Rockets

Jeff Bezos, founder of the online retailing giant, has unveiled a new commercial engine design for legacy military rockets.

Bezos, who also heads up the private spaceflight company Blue Origin LLC, was on hand with Tony Bruno, the new chief executive officer of the Lockheed Martin Corp.-Boeing Co. joint venture, United Launch Alliance LLC, on Wednesday at the National Press Club to announce an agreement to jointly fund development of the BE-4 engine.

The engine is designed to provide 550,000 pounds of thrust and replace the Russian-made RD-180 propulsion system currently on the Atlas V rocket, one of two boosters used by the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program to lift military and spy satellites into space.

“This business is too hard if you’re not passionate about it,” Bezos said, referring to space launch. “Cost and reliability are the two driving factors.”

In a statement released to coincide with the event, he said, “The team at Blue Origin is methodically developing technologies to enable human access to space at dramatically lower cost and increased reliability, and the BE-4 is a big step forward. With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great US-made rocket engine.”

Bruno, who last month replaced Michael Gass in a sudden change in leadership at ULA, said the partnership between the defense contracting giant and the space tourism start-up represented “the best of both worlds.”

In the statement, he said, “Blue Origin has demonstrated its ability to develop high-performance rocket engines and we are excited to bring together the best minds in engineering, supply chain management and commercial business practices to create an all-new affordable, reliable, American rocket engine that will create endless possibilities for the future of space launch.”

The pact calls for developing the engine over four years, with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The system will be available for use on either ULA or Blue Origin rockets.

The liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas engine will deliver 550,000 pounds of thrust at sea level, according to the statement. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1.1 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, it states. Development of the engine has been underway for three years and component testing continues at Blue Origin’s facilities in Texas. Bezos’ company recently purchased a new facility to support full engine testing.

ULA has faced relentless criticism from another start-up, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., known as SpaceX and headed by billionaire Elon Musk, for charging excessive launch fees and using Russian-made technology.

SpaceX, which on Tuesday won a $2.4 billion contract with NASA to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2017, is trying to break into the military market and may receive certification from the Air Force by December to carry national-security payloads aboard its Falcon 9 rocket.

Boeing also won a commercial crew contract for NASA, but it was much larger — $4.2 billion — for the same work: as many as six missions to and from the orbital outpost. The difference apparently is the result of SpaceX simply proposing to do the work for less.

Both contracts “have the same requirements and the companies proposed the value for which they were able to do the work, and the government accepted that,” Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA’s commercial crew program, according to an article by Christian Davenport of The Washington Post.

Meanwhile, Aerojet Rocketdyne has also partnered with a company called Dynetics to design the AR-1, a smaller, higher-performing version of the Apollo-era F-1, that could be used on both NASA and military rockets.

The Air Force recently began looking into ways to develop a possible replacement to the RD-180. The service next week plans to meet with firms interested in bidding for the work.

About the Author

Brendan McGarry
Brendan McGarry is the managing editor of He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @Brendan_McGarry.
  • blight_qwerty

    Bezos is smart not to go head to head with the ULA…looking at SpaceX you can see what happens when someone at Lockheed breaks out the Rolodex of Congresscritters.

  • guest

    Two internet billionaires with Mars sized egos going toe to toe. Whats not to like? What’s not to love about capitalism in America where two men, neither making their fortunes in rockets are turning the ride to LEO business upside down. I love it. ULA had to evolve quickly or die. Arianespace is paniced by SpaceX and is at wits end on their answer to Falcon 9 because their current bread and butter launcher won’t survive long against SpaceX.

    Now if only we can get that same competition going with the BEO non-existent business.

    • fun

      The US space industry has turned from a government farce into taxpayer-backed pseudo-private commercial farce.

      • tiff

        not a farce, more like clown acts

      • KnownKnowns

        What makes SpaceX a farce exactly?

        • Bernard

          Actually I think if it were SpaceX and not Amazon then it wouldn’t be a farce.

  • Kodai

    Each RD-180 provides 860K lb of thrust and runs off of LOX/RP-1. Using these will mean redesigning the Atlas again, instead of just incorporating 2 new engines. You’ll need at least 3 and you’ll need insulation on the fuel tank. The rocket won’t be able to lift as much as the current Atlas V.

    • blight_qwerty

      I can sense ULA’s glee with the prospect of redesign work…can’t you?

    • Mitch S.

      I find it interesting that they went with LNG.
      I wonder if environmental concerns (it burns much cleaner) were a major factor.

      • Dfens

        I have read that specifically was a consideration.

        • Maxtrue

… Musk is working towards Methane which is abundant and easier to handle. Its cleaner than kerosene too

          “No one seems to notice that this is their 4th engine. Blue Origin started with the core expertise of the DC-X team. They have built vehicles and flown them. That is no guarantee of success. Still, you would expect ULA to check the engineering before teaming up with Blue Origin.”

      • Atomic Walrus

        Burning cleaner is probably the driver, although I suspect it’s more an engine robustness issue rather than an environmental issue. Kerosene-fueled engines have had problems with coking, which reduces efficiency. Liquified natural gas is going to be less susceptible to coke formation, plus probably has some advantages in terms of regenerative cooling.

    • Moose

      You are in error. The Atlas V uses only a single RD-180, the engine has 2 thrust chambers giving the rocket the appearance of having 2 engines. A pair of BE-4s will have over a million pounds of thrust , and significantly outperform the single engine.

  • citanon

    Coming soon to Amazon: the Intercontinental Ballistic Shipping Method. :D

    • fun

      For use in delivering the dead bodies of US troops around Russia or Ukraine perhaps, along with whatever bombs they had failed to set off. Costs of delivery to be paid by US taxpayers, as usual.

      USPS might return to profitability by entering the competition with surface mail body bags.

      • tiff

        What’s the urgency for such fast delivery? To sweep up every last penny in the US treasury and transfer them to the coffers of the military industrial complex?

  • Dfens

    You’ll notice a distinct difference in the way ULA approaches the development of this engine with their own money at stake versus the way they would approach the development of an engine where the only one with anything to lose is the US taxpayer. Capitalism always works. It can work for you or against you, but it always works.

  • Bronco46

    Why didn’t NASA think to check AMAZON.COM in the first place. Just search “rocket engine” in the industrial & scientific section of the site.
    And shipping is free on orders over $35.00.

    • tiff

      They were all made in China perhaps?

      • Dfens

        You’re thinking Wal-Mart. Personally I think it would be funny as hell if Bezos put the BE-4 on Amazon.

        • jsallison

          Well if it’s Prime eligible…

  • oblatt22

    Ah the joys of American capitalism where you put up a foam model and the then siphon taxpayer money into your company.

    • Dfens

      “Bezos… was on hand with Tony Bruno… to announce an agreement to jointly fund development of the BE-4 engine.” It looks to me like a privately funded development program, not the usual publicly funded fiasco where the only people with anything to lose are the US taxpayers.

      • oblatt22

        The whole point of joining up with ULA is to get access to government funds.

        • Dfens

          Maybe ULA is seeing their gravy train coming to an end with the rise of SpaceX.

    • tencap1

      I think this is Bezos money, not the taxpayers. Don’t see anywhere in the article about NASA or USAF $$$ paying for this. Integration into ULA and SpaceX vehicles might be funded by tax $$$, but this has the potential of getting us off of the RD-180 and bringing engine work back to the USA…

  • Maxtrue

    Well at least Bezos didn’t propose Cannae Drive…

    • @alain_co

      Maybe will the boss of Alibaba will one day…
      at least the government seems to fund EmDrive research in the School of Astronautics (Yang Juan) and ally with Cherokee fund (Tom Darden/Industrial heat) about Nickeh Hydrogen cold fusion…

      is it time to panic ?

      not so much since navy works on cold fusion, Nasa studies LENR/cold fusion planes (Doug Wells, Zawodny, Gugar/Boeing report; see too older research by Nasa GRC fralick&co) test EmDrive too, SRI works with DoD to replicate LENR, and works with Navy NRL and ENEA on basic science…

      It seems just that in US to fund blackswan, or darkened-whiteswan, you have to fly under the radar.

      EU seems late but with ENEA ad LENR-Cities something big is flying under the radar…
      Conference of FPE in 2013, report on material science 2012… LENR-Cities soon…

      but mental structure of emerging countries are better prepared to those revolutions, but hopefully despite our academic and their followers engineers and entrepreneurs do the job. Running marathon with a backpack full of stones.

  • Dennis

    “Boeing also won a commercial crew contract for NASA, but it was much larger — $4.2 billion — for the same work: as many as six missions to and from the orbital outpost. The difference apparently is the result of SpaceX simply proposing to do the work for less.”

    Twice as much money for the same work. Nice way to screw the taxpayer…
    It’s ok, not like the Federal Government is in debt or anything….