Blue Origin

They’re filing a lawsuit against the USAF over launch procurement.

I don’t understand why the Air Force wouldn’t want more than two launch providers.

[Afternoon update]

I have some thoughts on Twitter, based on some of the comments here.

First, since people are saying that Blue Origin should demonstrate the ability to develop an orbital rocket, it’s fair to say that so should ULA. They’re flying vehicles developed by other companies over two decades ago.

Arguably, only two teams with recent orbital launcher development experience are SpaceX and NGIS (by acquiring Orbital ATK). Vulcan and New Glenn both currently remain paper rockets. At this point in time, SpaceX has the most experienced launch-development team on the planet.

And while NGIS does have the Antares experience, that won’t necessarily apply to their new vehicle. Even if it was a good idea, no one has successfully developed an orbital launcher based on a large segmented solid rocket. We know that Ares I had teething issues. And of course, this all ignores the reusability factor.

I assume that ULA still wants to recover engines, but that won’t make them competitive with Falcon series, let alone a successful Starship program. At least Blue plans booster reuse.

And ULA will remain hobbled by its parents’ unwillingness to allow it to spend sufficient resources on Vulcan development (and forget ACES). So the trajectory is that, if only two providers, Blue Origin and SpaceX are the way for the USAF to bet.

Also, both Blue Origin and SpaceX will have large commercial markets. Because it probably won’t be cost competitive, Vulcan probably won’t. But there are political reasons for the blue suits (if they remain in charge of launch procurement) to want to keep ULA alive.

If I were the head of Pentagon procurement, I’d go talk to the FECFTC about forcing a divestiture of ULA from its parents, not just on legitimate charges of child abuse, but because of the huge changes that have occurred in the launch market since 2006. But USAF seems to be stuck in the past, when it comes to procuring launches.

[Tuesday-morning update]

A nice history of the RD-180 and how it’s about to be superceded by both BE-4 and Raptor. The days of Russian dominance in rocket propulsion have come to an end.

[Bumped]

17 thoughts on “Blue Origin”

    1. ULA and NGIS are bidding “paper rockets” too. And, just like Blue’s New Glenn, ULA’s Vulcan is its first orbital design. Atlas V was designed by LockMart over 20 years ago.

      I don’t personally think NGIS has a prayer of being a selectee, but one has to admit it has a lot more recent orbital rocket design experience in-house than ULA does.

  1. They’re only launching 25 payloads over five years. There’s just not enough launches to be worth carrying more than two.

    1. It should still be the market that decides that and not USAF a priori.

      All this alleged concern about the market is special pleading for ULA. Both SpaceX and Blue will have significant non-NatSec business going foreward. ULA won’t. If there’s no arbitrary downselect to two providers, Blue would quickly shove ULA aside as the second provider and ULA would die. The USAF procurement bureaucracy will tie itself in knots to prevent that happening.

      1. The SLS is indeed a mess and severely production-limited. But – fortunately – it’s not being built to do national security launches.

  2. Off topic, but IEEE Spectrum has a Moon base issue up. That’ll probably burn up a bit of everyone’s Monday.

    The AIAA should respond with an issue devoted to proposed communication frequencies and electrical power distribution systems for moon bases, just to be snarky.

  3. Maybe, instead of trying to guess at or choose winners, the Air Force should concentrate on building pay loads that they can bolt to any rocket with the necessary power.

  4. First, since people are saying that Blue Origin should demonstrate the ability to develop an orbital rocket, it’s fair to say that so should ULA.

    Oh, good grief! ULA has already developed Delta I, Delta II, Delta III, Delta IV Medium, Delta IV Heavy, Atlas I, Atlas II, Atlas III, and Atlas V. These vehicles have over 1,000 successful launches among them. They have more relevant launch vehicle design, manufacturing, and operations history than everyone else in the non-Russian world combined. To equate them with an organization that has only built a glorified Delta Clipper is just nuts.

    And of course, this all ignores the reusability factor.

    Nobody but a few SpaceX fanboys cares about reusability. 25 launches in five years isn’t anywhere close to being high enough for reusability to be cost effective.

    But there are political reasons for the blue suits (if they remain in charge of launch procurement) to want to keep ULA alive.

    Yes, the reasons are the Air Force wanting to put specific payloads in specific orbits at specific times. ULA can perform all of the missions and has been doing so for a long time. SpaceX can perform most of the missions and has been doing so for a short time. Northrop Grumman has performed different missions for a medium amount of time. Blue Origin has performed no missions the Air Force cares about.

    1. The question is why would you pay several times over to avoid reusability. It doesn’t cost, it pays.

      It’s simple. X pounds in Y orbit, how much? Cheapest wins.

      1. With this new paradigm of increased competition, is the EELV blockbuy still justified? I thought it was to get the “best deal” from the ULA monopoly.

    2. ULA has already developed Delta I, Delta II, Delta III, Delta IV Medium, Delta IV Heavy, Atlas I, Atlas II, Atlas III, and Atlas V.

      ULA developed none of those vehicles. Most of the people who did are long dead or retired.

      To equate them with an organization that has only built a glorified Delta Clipper is just nuts.

      No, what is nuts is to claim that the organization that learned the lessons from DC-X (not “a glorified Delta Clipper”) to get very expensive operational first stages back and to be able to refly them is nuts.

      Nobody but a few SpaceX fanboys cares about reusability. 25 launches in five years isn’t anywhere close to being high enough for reusability to be cost effective.

      No, non-morons (unlike you, apparently) care about reducing launch costs, nothing that no other rocket company prior to SpaceX actually did.

      Is Boeing paying you to demonstrate your idiocy on the Interwebs? If so, it’s probably not enough.

      1. Oh, good grief! ULA has already developed Delta I, Delta II, Delta III, Delta IV Medium, Delta IV Heavy, Atlas I, Atlas II, Atlas III, and Atlas V.

        ULA developed none of those vehicles. Most of the people who did are long dead or retired.

        That reminds me of something Kentucky Senator Alben Barkley related back in the 1950’s, back when some of those launch vehicles were being developed.

        I would relate to the crowds how I called on a certain rural constituent and was shocked to hear him say he was thinking of voting for my opponent. I reminded him of the many things I had done for him as prosecuting attorney, as county judge, as congressman, and senator. I recalled how I had helped get an access road built to his farm, how I had visited him in a military hospital in France when he was wounded in World War I, how I had assisted him in securing his veteran’s benefits, how I had arranged his loan from the Farm Credit Administration, how I had got him a disaster loan when the flood destroyed his home, etc., etc.

        “How can you think of voting for my opponent?” I exhorted at the end of this long recital. “Surely you remember all these things I have done for you?”

        “Yeah,” he said, I remember. But what in hell have you done for me lately?”

        That long and distinguished history, from Thor Delta through Atlas V, is indeed most impressive looking, whether the Air Force ever buys another launch from them or not. Credit should also be given to NPO Energomash which made possible the upgraded Atlas III and the development of the Atlas V, back at the turn of the century.

        History is replete with examples of successful and even dominant aerospace companies that sat on their laurels and watched the commercial market pass them by.

  5. The article on RD-180, BE-4 and Raptor is okay historically, but a little short technologically. The Soviets have been using ox-rich preburner, staged combustion technology for a very, very long time. All of the NK engines for the N-1 moon rocket used it, and I know first-hand how amazing they are. There’s a little additional information that’s not very public, however.

    When Aerojet approach the ex-Soviet Union to see about buying rocket engines, they sent Bob Davis to do the job. I had Bob as CEO of Kelly Space & Technology for some time, He told me why they picked the NK engines over any others.

    The ox-rich preburner cycle puts all of the oxidizer through the preburner, with just enough fuel to heat it up to about 700 F. There is a critical pressure at which stainless steel (the Soviets used something equivalent to our 410) will ignite in almost pure oxygen at that temperature. The NK engines operate just below that pressure. All of the RDs operate well above it.

    A special surface coating for the oxygen duct is what makes the RD engines able to operate above the critical temperature. The Russians were willing to give Aerojet all of the design information for the RD engines, except for the coating. And they were willing to give them all of the design information for the NK’s.

    Not that it made a whole lot of difference. While at FAA, I “oversaw” Orbital’s Antares failure investigation. While I already knew a lot about the NK-33 from my KST days, we got into details that went way beyond. In particular, the mixture ratio controller is an arcane, hydraulically powered device. The Aerojet people referred to it as “the hydraulic television set.” No one had any idea how it worked, including anyone still alive in Russia (and there were probably none from the original Kuznetsov design bureau).

    Aerojet had naively assumed that with all of the design information, it could reverse engineer the engine enough to produce it here. That never works. I’ve been through it many times. If the people who did the original work are not involved, it becomes a whole new development program starting from scratch.

    1. There’s an interesting Youtube channel called “The Ushanka Show” about growing up in the Soviet Union, and the host has an episode where he talks about how proud everyone was that they beat the Americans into space and how advanced their country must be, even though they didn’t have toilets or indoor plumbing.

      Well, maybe these two things are connected, and they didn’t have toilets because somebody, I’m not saying who, was using all the porcelain for oxygen rich pre-burners and turbines. Just sayin’.

      But if the rumor spreads, it probably started here. ^_^

      Anyway, I’d be curious if anyone has used something like Haynes 214 alloy for that application, since it has excellent high temperature oxidation resistance.

    2. If the people who did the original work are not involved, it becomes a whole new development program starting from scratch.

      Yes, because when it comes down to it, companies don’t have experience, their employees do. For example, Boeing can claim they’ve (or more accurately, companies they’ve acquired) have built Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and the Shuttle spacecraft. However, it was their employees who built those vehicles. Few, if any, of them are still in the workforce and quite likely more than a few of them have died.

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