NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The ease of acquiring, supporting and operating the liquefied natural gas that will power Blue Origin

‘s BE-4 rocket engine is exciting to the head of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC).

AFSPC chief Gen. John Hyten said Wednesday the propulsion capabilities proposed by such an engine are also attractive. United Launch Alliance (ULA) and Blue Origin said Wednesday they entered into a teaming arrangement to jointly fund development of Blue Origin’s new BE-4 rocket engine.

An Atlas V launches for an NROL mission.  Photo: ULA
An Atlas V launches for an NROL mission. Photo: ULA

“No one has been able to make it real yet, not to the scale they’re looking at,” Hyten told reporters here at the 2014 Air and Space Conference hosted by the Air Force Association.

The Air Force is looking for domestic rocket engine production to reduce its reliance on Russia for national security launches. The service in an August request for information (RFI) asked industry about the possibility of a United States-developed next-generation rocket engine (Defense Daily, Aug. 21). DoD currently uses the Russian-made RD-180 engine in most of its launches.

The BE-4 is a liquid oxygen, liquefied natural gas (LNG) rocket engine that delivers 550,000-pound force (lbf) of thrust as sea level. Two BE-4s will power each ULA booster, providing 1.1 million-lbf thrust at liftoff. ULA said it is investing in the engineering and development of the BE-4 to enable availability for national security, civil, human and commercial missions.

The ULA-Blue Origin agreement allows for a four-year development process with full-scale testing in 2016 and first flight in 2019. The BE-4 will be available for use by ULA and Blue Origin for both companies’ next-generation launch systems.

“With the new ULA partnership, we’re accelerating commercial development of the next great United States-made rocket engine,” Blue Origin founder and entrepreneur Jeff Bezos said in a statement.

Development of the BE-4 engine has been underway for three years, ULA said, and testing of BE-4 components is ongoing at Blue Origin’s test facilities in west Texas. Blue Origin recently commissioned a new large test facility for the BE-4 to support full engine testing.

Hyten said he received a late morning joint phone call Wednesday from Bezos and new ULA CEO Tory Bruno, which he said tipped him off about the engine partnership.

“I don’t really know what (three years of development) means to be honest with you, but three years of development is better than starting from ground zero,” Hyten said.

Hyten said if industry started from scratch to build a new engine in the hydrocarbon technology area, which includes liquefied natural gas, it would take roughly five years, maybe four, maybe six, to reach production. Industry would also have to spend the next year or two driving down the technology risk so the engine could actually be built.

“That is the significant challenge with starting from ground zero,” Hyten said.

ULA said future joint projects beyond BE-4 are being considered as the initial teaming arrangement is to jointly fund the development of an engine compatible with ULA’s future launch vehicle needs. ULA said the the BE-4 is not a direct replacement for the RD-180 Russian rocket engine that currently powers ULA’s Atlas V rocket and that two BE-4s are expected to provide the engine thrust for the next-generation of ULA vehicles.

After development and production of BE-4, Blue Origin will make the engine commercially available to other companies. ULA would not disclose the costs of the new engine. The company added it expects BE-4 production to cut costs for future government and commercial customers.

ULA and Blue Origin are ensuring the BE-4 meets requirements of both commercial customers and the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program.

Engine component testing is underway at Blue Origin’s test facilities in Kent, Wash., and Texas. Testing to date includes subscale oxygen-rich preburner development and staged combustion testing of the preburner and main injector assembly. The next major development milestone will be testing of the turbopumps and main valves. Full engine testing is scheduled to begin in 2016.

ULA said unlike other rocket propellants such as kerosene, liquid natural gas enables autogenous tank pressurization, eliminating the need for costly and complex pressurization systems such as helium, which the company said is in increasingly short supply. ULA said the gaseous properties of LNG simplify decontamination of the engine before vehicle installation, while improving operability and safe operation for use.