Blue Origin’s Liquid-Fueled BE-4 Rocket Engine Utilizes Additive Manufacturing to Make Boost Pump Components


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blue-origin-logoWe’ve heard about Jeff Bezos before: not only is he the billionaire who founded Amazon, but he also founded his own space venture, Blue Origin, more than 16 years ago. As of October 2016, Blue Origin has conducted five successful test flights of its New Shepard suborbital rocket ship, and the company even threw its hat in the ring back in 2014 to help produce the vitally important RD-180 engine, used to send the Atlas V rocket into space, completely in the US, offering to develop a liquid-fueled version of the engine. Now, according to an article on Yahoo, Bezos recently gave a mass email update about Blue Origin’s process of building this next-generation rocket engine, known as the BE-4, that will be fueled by liquefied natural gas. No surprise here – additive manufacturing plays a part in building the BE-4.


[Image: Blue Origin]

According to the Blue Origin website, the BE-4 rocket engine will meet the 2019 deadline, mandated by Congress, to eliminate dependence on Russian-built engines. In his update, Bezos described the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, developed by Robert Goddard in the 1920s, and explained that it used “compressed gas to force the liquid propellants into the engine thrust chambers.” Quickly, Goddard realized that this simple design required heavy propellant tanks, which limited the engine’s performance and chamber pressure, cutting back on payload capacity, and came up with a better solution: turbopumps.

“Store the propellants in low-pressure light tanks, and then pump the propellants up to high pressure just ahead of injection into the main chamber,” Bezos said. “For even more performance, you can add one or more boost pumps ahead of the main pumps. We’ve done that on the oxidizer side of our BE-4 engine. Our Ox Boost Pump (OBP) design leverages 3-D additive manufacturing to make many of the key components. The housing is a single printed aluminum part and all of the stages of the hydraulic turbine are printed from Monel, a nickel alloy. This manufacturing approach allows the integration of complex internal flow passages in the housing that would be much more difficult to make using conventional methods. The turbine nozzle and rotors are also 3-D printed and require minimum machining to achieve the required fits.”


An employee works on the BE-4 Ox Boost Pump prior to engine installation. [Blue Origin Photo via Jeff Bezos]

Bezos said that the additively manufactured OBP was demonstrated in testing last year, and that Blue Origin is currently testing the second iteration. He ended the email with Blue Origin’s motto, “Gradatim Ferociter!” In case you wondered what this means (because I did), the meaning is Latin for “Step By Step, Ferociously.” According to GeekWire, Bezos says this is his approach to spaceflight, meaning that you can’t cut corners when building vehicles that will fly. The Blue Origin website goes into the philosophy further, explaining that their “incremental development process builds upon each success” as they work on developing ground-breaking spaceflights. If you ask me, this could almost be the motto for the 3D printing industry as a whole, which sees success (and print jobs) built layer by layer.

[Image: Blue Origin]

The New Shepard space vehicle rockets off the West Texas launch pad and accelerates toward its planned test altitude of 307,000 feet. [Image: Blue Origin]

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine has been designed to power its New Glenn orbital rocket (named in honor of John Glenn): the first stage will use a total of seven BE-4 engines, while the second stage only requires one. The BE-4 can also launch United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan semi-reusable rocket. Based on the results of a crucial upcoming BE-4 engine test, ULA will decide whether it’s going to stick with the BE-4, or go with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine (also made possible thanks to additive manufacturing, incidentally). At the same time, Blue Origin is also continuing the suborbital test flight program for its New Shepard reusable spaceship, which is powered by the hydrogen-fueled BE-3 engine. The first iteration was recently retired, and the company is getting the New Shepard 2.0 ready for its first trip to outer space at its West Texas launch test facility.

Speaking of launch facilities, the State of Florida is budgeting $17 million from the Department of Transportation for Blue Origin’s future launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. Launch Complex 36 will be the site of the company’s rocket launches for the reusable New Glenn orbital rockets. Back in September 2015, Bezos announced his plans to use the pad, and has promised that Blue Origin will match the state’s contributions, which takes the refurbishing budget up to $34 million. The company also plans to open a $200 million, 750,000-square-foot factory for the New Glenn rockets at the Kennedy Space Center in 2018; it will employ 330 people.

[Image: Blue Origin]

[Image: Blue Origin]

In his 2015 public announcement of the project, Bezos said, “We’re not just launching here, we’re building here. Our ultimate vision is millions of people living and working in space.”

Blue Origin isn’t the only space agency benefiting from Florida’s announced budget: $19.5 million has also been budgeted for “operations and job creation funding for Space Florida,” which is a public agency inside the state’s Department of Transportation that deals with Cape Canaveral’s local space industry. Discuss in the BE-4 forum at

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