back to article USA's efforts to stop relying on Russian-built rocket engines derailed by issues with Blue Origin's BE-4

Things aren't looking too good for a certain American-produced rocket engine, according to the US Government Accountability Office - and it isn't SpaceX's Merlin. The June GAO Weapon Systems Annual Assessment report to Congress [PDF] makes grim reading for fans of billionaire-built space stuff. Noted by NASAWatch, the section …

  1. Duncan Macdonald Silver badge

    Use Raptor instead ?

    If asked nicely then SpaceX would probably sell Raptor engines to ULA for only $10million each (a nice 900% markup on the production cost of $1million each!!) .

    Icon for Bezo's head if the ULA used Raptor instead of BE-4 ===============>

    1. Mishak Silver badge

      Re: Use Raptor instead ?

      It's not a drop in replacement though, as the Raptor is less powerful - see the excellent article by Everyday Astronaut at

  2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    They use the Russian engines because they're cheaper

    Why not just have the Russians launch your payload?

    Surely insisting that your own industry build them instead of letting the market decide is communism?

    "Demand Russian Rockets to Fight Communism" - too long of a slogan to fit on a hat ?

    1. Mishak Silver badge

      Re: Capitlaism

      No, the Russians have been charging well above what "the free market" can offer; basically exploiting the fact that they were the only supplier and where out of reach of monopolies legislation. There is also a significant security risk if you allow your "enemy" to supply engines for intelligence / military missions.

      SpaceX v BO will be more interesting, as they will have to compete on commercial grounds (unlike a lot of the rest of the US incumbents).

      Edited to add:

      A table towards the end of the article at shows that the RD-180 is not a cheap option.

      1. ian 22

        Re: Capitlaism

        Oddly, I thought charging what the market would bear was capitalism in action. And monopoly Capitalism was, well, capitalism.

        1. Robert Grant Silver badge

          Re: Capitlaism

          Yes, the alternative was not launching anything. Nothing to see here.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Capitlaism

      Possibly the US may be a bit averse to letting the Russians launch national security payloads, which is the subject of this article.

      Plus, the engines are not necessarily cheaper, they are just available. Since the Russians could withhold supply or change the price, it makes sense to have home grown alternatives. Preferably, more than one source for competitive pricing reasons and knowing you can still launch if one supplier has issues.

    3. eldakka Silver badge

      Re: Capitlaism

      > They use the Russian engines because they're cheaper

      No. They were at the time of initial selection 20 years ago the only currently in production engine that could meet the performance criteria. There just was no other practical option in production, there weren't even any on the drawing board let alone under active development.

      1. rg287 Silver badge

        Re: Capitlaism

        Also, it was politically savvy at a time when US-Russia relations were thawing. Encourage the fledging (and broke) Russian Federation to open their borders and make them a bit dependent on exports/incoming foreign currency, in return for accepting more imports from US/Western businesses.

        This in the knowledge that the all-American Delta IV / RS68 engine was available in a pinch. Of course in the finest traditions of US government contractors it's a heavier, more expensive engine with an inferior thrust/weight ratio.

    4. cray74

      Re: Capitlaism

      They use the Russian engines because they're cheaper

      More significantly, the Russian kerosene-oxygen rocket engines have exceptional performance. While the US mostly ignored kerosene after the 1960s to focus on hydrogen-oxygen rockets (and solids, for military use), the USSR kept plugging away at kerosene-oxygen engines. Until SpaceX's Merlin series of engines the US had nothing like the thrust-to-weight performance of the RD-170 family. The fall of the Iron Curtain and revelation of Russian rocket engines caused some eye-boggling in the US.

      Then the US started buying those engines because, y'know, capitalism trumped patriotism. In the 1990s the Russian engines were good, cheap engines that could substantially improve US rocket performance. When the engines became expensive in the 2000s the performance was still worthwhile.

      Why not just have the Russians launch your payload?

      Tricky question. A few follow-up questions:

      1. If Boeing uses Rolls-Royce jet engines on its airliners, why not build the planes in the UK?

      2. If Chrysler and Dodge used Japanese engines in its cars, why not build the cars in Japan?

      3. What about all of NASA's flights to the ISS in Soyuz capsules?

      US commercial satellite operators have gone outside US borders for their launches. The Ariane family was a workhorse for the world's launches until recently. A US communication satellite was on the Long March 3B that killed at least 6 if not several hundred people. When saving money matters to a US satellite operator they're certainly willing to chase a cheaper launch.

      But in this restricted case, the Atlas rockets using Russian engines primarily have US government payloads. While NASA doesn't mind launching on foreign rockets if they get the job done (e.g., James Webb is going up on an Ariane V), the National Reconnaissance Office and Department of Defense will laugh themselves into hiccups and hernias at the idea of putting one of their satellites on a "Rooskie" rocket.

      As the original capitalist economist Adam Smith noted, "There seem, however, to be two cases in which it will generally be advantageous to lay some burden upon foreign, for the encouragement of domestic industry. The first is, when some particular sort of industry is necessary for the defence of the country. ..."

      The usual defense-related payloads of Atlas rockets are definitely cases where the customer will not chase the cheapest launch to foreign spaceports but will rather use a launch that suits the customer's idea of national security. Taking a modern NRO payload to Russia is basically inviting Russians into Lockheed-Martin's factories for a detailed inspection of US spy satellites.

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge

        Re: Capitlaism

        30 years ago 'internationalization' was a big thing, other than for military and national security purposes. True it was short-sighted in light of the more recent behavior of those nations we were trying to normalize relations with, specifically Russia and China, but optimism about the future of the world was high, post Cold War.

        Reality basically did not work out *quite* the way they saw things through their rose colored glasses.

        In any case, getting U.S. companies to build engines better than the Russian ones just needs enough R&D time+money. And, are the Russian engine makers designing the next generation to remain competitive, or just sitting on what they've got and milking it for all it's worth?

      2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Capitlaism

        >While NASA doesn't mind launching on foreign rockets if they get the job done (e.g., James Webb is going up on an Ariane V),

        It most certainly does (or at least its chums at ULA do) the whole design and 10 year delay of JWST was to avoid an Ariane launch, it was only the irony that this caused them to run out of money.

        Entire nations satellite industries are built on the USA not allowing launches of US built commercial payloads, forcing them to go home grown. ULA even blocked sea launch on the basis that sailing 12 miles offshore to launch was an "export"

        1. cray74

          Re: Capitlaism

          It most certainly does (or at least its chums at ULA do) ... ULA even blocked sea launch on the basis that sailing 12 miles offshore to launch was an "export"

          Good points: a commercial rival with less competitive products undermined opponents. ULA's parents, Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, certainly don't mind wielding lobbyists when their products fall short.

          It was amusing to see SpaceX lawyer their way into national defense launches. ULA thought they had that locked up.

          the whole design and 10 year delay of JWST was to avoid an Ariane launch,

          As of 2008, NASA was planning to use an Ariane 5. 2008 was before most of the instruments had been built or mirrors finished. There were certainly many delays after that point like testing problems in the 2010s but they weren't related to avoiding the Ariane 5.

          Were there also delays in the 1996-2007 period based on avoiding Ariane 5 use?

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Capitlaism

            The original proposal late 90s was a ligthweight "conventional" 6m mirror be launched by an Ariane5 in an enlarged fairing.

            Politics in the early 2000s meant it couldn't be launched on a cheese eating surrender monkey rocket - and no patriot rocket was big enough, hence the crazy folding design.

            That burned so much time/money they needed foreign partners and ESO contributed the Ariane5 launch.

    5. A random security guy

      Re: Capitlaism

      Capitalism 101

      A monopoly on rocket engines meant that the Russians could increase their price to whatever they wanted to.

      This means there is a market OPPORTUNITY for another manufacturer to make a product at a lower price point.

      Meanwhile, the Russians had a bloated expense sheet while the newbie can run lean, slim, and hungry.

    6. StephenTompsett

      Re: Capitlaism

      Cheaper? Only if you only use the engines/rocket once and throw it away!

  3. martinusher Silver badge

    Wrong development target

    The decision to use Russian engines was taken years ago because there was a ready supply of cost effective, reliable, engines. This also meant that ULA could avoid the expense and hassle of developing a new engine, a big savings for the conglomerate as they could save big on facilities, personnel and the like. (Rocket engines like the ones used on the Shuttle were developed locally but today's version of the plant where the engine was proudly displayed outside for many years is but a shadow of its former self.) Like a lot of sound commercial decisions it carried with it some awful implications, one being the run down and even the export of expertise and talent. Rushing to catch up, to replace that Russian component, is a waste of time -- everyone's moved on, SpaceX is now doing the interesting aerospace development (and probably hired the best of the engineers displaced from the other plants) so a rush project in the slimmed down industry to duplicate what is effectively a close to obsolete engine design is doomed to failure.

    SpaceX has done what the ULA should have been doing. Its successful and as such I reckon its only a matter of time before reusable boosters start turning up in some remote R&D facility in Asia (by which time SpaceX will have moved the bar a bit more).

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Wrong development target

      One of the conditions was that the Russian engines would be eventually licensed and produced by an American company... and Congress never allocated funds or a contract.

      So they have no one but themselves to blame.

      1. ggb667

        Re: Wrong development target

        Oh so billionaire Bezos can only perform if we BRIBE him to do his job? Doesn't sound motivated to me.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wrong development target

          How is paying a company to develop and supply a product a bribe?

          1. Mishak Silver badge

            Re: Wrong development target

            Most commercial products are developed "at risk"* with the hope/expectation that sales will cover the costs over the its projected market life. Development costs are normally only paid for bespoke components, which is why COTS is preferable when available.

            Contributions to development costs are sometimes made to reduce development time-scales or to make development of low-volume products viable. What is not acceptable is taxpayer funds being used to allow a business to develop a product that will be sold on a commercial basis as well as for a government project+.

            * Tax regimes have some sort of rebate for investments like these to encourage businesses to develop new products.

            + I am not saying this is the case with BO.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: Wrong development target

              The federal govt also famously refuses to do NRE contracts, which is why you get those stories of $300 hammers or $3000 toilet seats - you have to fold all the devlopement costs into the first order and then hopefully drop the price to real costs on subsequent ones.

  4. Def Silver badge


    It's amazing how some people continuously fail to make rocket engines that work. I mean, come on. It's not rocket scie-... oh.

    Don't get up. I'll see myself out.

  5. Lars Silver badge


    The story of the RD-180 is actually quite interesting and the Russians were ahead of the Americans

    then and it's still a viable engine after all these years.

    Try a search for RD-180 on YouTube there is quite a lot about it.

    The Engines That Came In From The Cold - And how The NK-33/RD-180 Came To The USA

    Atlas V - an American rocket with a Russian engine

  6. ITS Retired

    I wonder how much America's dumbed down education system, from kindergarten to doctorate and masters degrees, has contributed to the rocket problem? To say nothing about the actual cost to the parents and students of being taught to the tests, instead of comprehension.

    1. Kev99 Silver badge

      Not to mention the lazy, you owe me attitude of so many American workers.

    2. martinusher Silver badge

      After Sputnik there was a huge push towards science and engineering education in the US resulting in a generation of well qualified engineers that went on to produce a lot of the technology that we take for granted today. These engineers are now either retired or coming up to retirement. Meanwhile the pipeline stalled somewhat as degrees became insanely expensive and engineering companies systematically downsized and outsourced meaning that a job, let alone a career, in one of the established engineering companies -- including aerospace -- was seen as a job of last resort, further feeding into the downsizing and outsourcing frenzy. Now we're at the point where the experienced engineers are retired or retiring but there's nothing much in the pipeline to fill it up again. Our schools have been hollowed out by de-skilling and over managing teaching, something that's seriously impacted math and physics (its difficult to get adequately educated in advanced math skills and physics at a US high school because there just aren't the teachers which seriously impacts any classes that are on offer).

      One reason we're having a competitiveness problem is that China (for example) is turning out about 35,000 engineers a year. In the past we could import other peoples' engineers to make up our shortfall but our declining real wages and xenophobic visa policies have made this option far less attractive than it used to be.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        America's Ivy League are still turning out plentiful world class science and engineering people, compared to the rest of the world. This is the reason that the Chinese want to get their best people into US universities.

        1. rg287 Silver badge

          America's Ivy League are still turning out plentiful world class science and engineering people, compared to the rest of the world. This is the reason that the Chinese want to get their best people into US universities.

          As with so much in the US though, this merely highlights the haves- and have-nots.

          The US has some of the very best healthcare in the world. Real cutting-edge treatments... If you can afford them.

          For everyone else, you get squat. Or medicare. Maybe. Depending on the incumbent president.

          Likewise, the fact that Ivy League universities are undoubtedly excellent doesn't change the fact that the educational options for the majority of Americans have declined over recent decades, both in affordability/accessibility as well as in standards. Too many colleges spend too much on hand-egg and not enough on teaching.

          America's best is very good indeed, but it lacks depth.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            >America's Ivy League are still turning out plentiful world class science and engineering people,

            When I left working there the U Ca system noticed that the only non-chinese surnamed PhD candidates they had in physics were 1st generation Russian immigrants.

            The suggestion was that as soon as the Ivy league schools stopped being racist and all the high achieving Chinese and Indian children of immigrants could get into law and medicine the USA was fscked.

            they didn't stop being racist, which fortunately means all the merchant bankers continued to be Charles Winchester IIIs and all the smart foreign looking kids went to silicon valley.

          2. Robert Grant Silver badge

            > The US has some of the very best healthcare in the world. Real cutting-edge treatments... If you can afford them.

            This is just the case everywhere. Lots of treatments just aren't available on the NHS because they're too expensive for the value they provide the country.

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "I wonder how much America's dumbed down education system, from kindergarten to doctorate and masters degrees, has contributed to the rocket problem?"

      How many rocket engines are designed in a year? One or less? That really puts a limit on a career in designing rocket engines. Somebody with a real education may see that and decide to go into something less narrow to have more opportunities in the job market.

      1. Avatar of They

        Swap out

        'Rocket engines'

        With say 'missile systems' and you suddenly find a heck of a lot more engineering job positions as the US does seem to build and replace missiles and weapon systems at a frightening rate to feed their military.

        Symbol because the military have really big rockets

    4. bombastic bob Silver badge

      Yeah, the education topic is pretty *HOT* right now, especially in one part of the state of Virginia. I'll avoid going beyond 'a mention' in this forum so as not to derail the thread.

      Some of what you say may be true, but it would seem to me that companies will just build products to make money and as such they will go with a market that has a future in order to have growth potential, enough to keep them from going bankrupt along the way. The "Find a Need and Meet It" mentality drives most of the successful companies. There are still enough smart people to make the engineering happen, and even poorly educated employees can be trained by the companies themselves, if needed.

      Bezos' company just needs their engine to outperform the Russian one, that's all. "Resolve the Contradictions" and they'll get there. They probably just don't have the decades' worth of experience to get it done quicker. But they will. Eventually.

  7. ggb667

    ULA And Blue Origin

    Don't lump SPACE-X in with these loosers. Spacex says it does stuff and does it. Bezos just bilks the taxpairs for billions and produces nothing.

    1. Mishak Silver badge

      Re: ULA And Blue Origin

      It certainly won't look good if SpaceX gets $2.9Bn as HLS prime and BO gets more as the reserve!

    2. richardcox13

      Re: ULA And Blue Origin

      > pacex says it does stuff and does it eventually

      FIFY: announced timelines don't match reality. (SpaceX is fat from the only party suffering from this.)

    3. Adair Silver badge

      Re: ULA And Blue Origin

      It would seem that a 'looser' is someone who 'lets things go loose', as in become unruly or escape.

      Whereas, a 'loser' is someone who persistently 'loses' in the game of life, and is therefore seen as hopeless, or an easy mark.

  8. Kev99 Silver badge

    What's wrong with just starting the production lines of the Rocketdyne F-1A or J-2 engines? They did a good job getting us to the moon once before.

    1. John Geek

      its a lot more than just the final assembly line (which would have to be rebuilt from scratch), there's a huge number of parts made by suppliers who are no longer prepared to make those components, the whole supply chain would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

    2. Is it turned on?

      Scraps of paper

      Also apparently, bizarre as it sounds, they don't have a complete set of blue prints for the design of the final flight engines.

      While there was a plan originally, as they started building them and encountering problems, they just "tweaked" things to fix them. With a lot of the fixes either stored in the head of the engineer making that part or on a scrap of paper.

      Now with the original engineers all mostly gone, or retired to Sunny Haven in Florida there is no one left who knows how.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Scraps of paper

        The test stands at Edwards Air Force base are still up there on rocket ridge. I was able to get a tour some years ago. Pretty amazing place to visit. I don't there there is a test stand anywhere else in the world where 2 F-1 engines could be tested at the same time.

  9. Tariq1

    BO & ULA are old school aerospace types - they will not take the risks to stay ahead of this game unless funded by the taxpayer. Musk is a bold risk taker - not afraid to risk his own money to achieve his ultimate goal of making us a space faring

    nation. The difference in their progress is obvious.

    As to the engines - the RD-180 was and is one of the most reliable staged combustion engines to come out of the Soviet Union. Lockheed, now ULA, never took the risk to develop the next gen engines - would have meant money out of their own pocket. The real next gen staged combustion engines are the Raptor and the future BE-4 (whenever it becomes real).

    None of these engines is a drop-in replacement for the other - too many variables, not just the thrust. ULA would have to redesign its booster to accommodate the Raptors. That may not be a bad option over the long haul.

    Given the current political climate and Bezos’s favorite weapon - the courts, it is highly unlikely.

    1. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

      Bezos Billions

      Jeff has dumped more of his money into Blue than Elon invested in SpaceX. The difference is the Blue focused on a sub-orbital human rated rocket with delivery real soon now and SpaceX focused on putting things in orbit a decade ago. Blue has earned some loose change from some sub-orbital science payloads and nearly delivering some engines. SpaceX has earned money one the same scale as Jeff's investment in Blue by putting tons of stuff into orbit and creating a commercially viable ride to the ISS and back.

      Jeff would love to have a real rocket company and is still prepared to spend his own money to get one. The bad news is he just did a Boeing/McDonnell Douglas (hiring the management from Aerojet Rocketdyne and installing them over the heads of his own team that beat them to get Blue's biggest contract).

      If ULA and Blue continue with their current rate of progress the second place US launch provider will be Rocket Lab. Blue could be a big litigation company or with some drastic changes actually launch some rockets to orbit. They could also become a payload company and leave launch to SpaceX+Rocket Lab. Jeff's choice.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Bezos Billions

        Or Blue could 'invest' in politicians and get all other competitors blocked for national security etc and have a monopoly

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022