ULA’s chief sizes up the rocket engine race

Image: Tory Bruno
United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, talks with students during the 32nd Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. (GeekWire photo by Alan Boyle)

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – United Launch Alliance’s president and CEO, Tory Bruno, is facing a 2019 deadline from Congress to come up with a made-in-the-USA replacement for the Russian-built rocket engines currently used on ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 launch vehicle. But he doesn’t sound worried. He’s got a Plan A, and a Plan B.

“We’re in that great position of having the two to choose from,” Bruno told GeekWire this week here at the 32nd Space Symposium.

Plan A is a rocket engine that’s being built by Blue Origin, the company founded by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos and headquartered in Kent, Wash. Nineteen months ago, Bezos and Bruno announced a deal to support the development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, fueled by liquid natural gas, for ULA’s next-generation Vulcan semi-reusable rocket.

Bruno said Bezos is putting up the “lion’s share” of the money for the effort, and in February, the U.S. Air Force provided an additional $46.6 million boost.

But then there’s Plan B: Aerojet Rocketdyne – which is based in Sacramento, Calif., but has a facility in Redmond, Wash. – is getting $115 million from the Air Force to develop a kerosene-fueled engine called the AR-1 that could serve as an alternative for ULA’s rockets.

United Launch Alliance, a Colorado-based joint venture involving the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin, will soon have to pick which plan to go with. It’s not a decision Bruno takes lightly.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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