Blue Origin Engine Explodes in Test

by Yuri Nikolaenko

Explosion Occurs During Testing of Blue Origin Rocket Engine

Jul 17, 2023

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Jeff Bezos’ space company Blue Origin suffered a setback when one of its rocket engines exploded during a test. The incident occurred on 30 June at Blue Origin’s rocket engine testing facility in West Texas.

The engine that exploded was a BE-4 engine that Blue Origin has been developing for years. It is designed to power the company’s New Glenn orbital rocket as well as United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket. The BE-4 engine uses liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen as propellants and is capable of producing 550,000 pounds of thrust.

Static fire test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine. Credit: Blue Origin

According to Blue Origin, the explosion happened during a routine test firing of the engine. While the rocket engines are designed to withstand extreme pressures and temperatures, this one experienced a failure for unknown reasons, destroying the test stand it was mounted on. No injuries were reported since the test area was unoccupied at the time.

This failure serves as a reminder that rocket development includes setbacks as engines are pushed to their limits during testing. However, it is not expected to seriously delay Blue Origin’s programs. The company has been conducting test fires of BE-4 engine prototypes for several years and likely has enough data to uncover the cause of the anomaly. Additional engines remain in production.

The BE-4 is a critical piece of Blue Origin’s strategy. The reusable New Glenn rocket, which will be powered by BE-4 engines, is designed to compete with SpaceX and others in the satellite launch market. United Launch Alliance is also banking on the BE-4 for its next-generation Vulcan rocket, choosing it over a competing engine from Aerojet Rocketdyne.

Despite the explosion, Blue Origin indicated it remains confident in the BE-4’s design. Investigators will now comb through data to determine what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening again. Setbacks are common during rocket engine development as the technology is constantly pushed to its limits. As Elon Musk of SpaceX once said after a rocket failure, “There are a thousand ways a launch can go wrong and only one way it can go right.”

For billionaire businessman Jeff Bezos, who founded Blue Origin in 2000, the dream of space travel and releasing the potential of the space industry remains unchanged. Bezos has been selling $1 billion in Amazon stock annually to help fund Blue Origin’s ambitions. The company is developing the reusable New Shepard rocket for space tourism along with the much larger New Glenn for satellite launches. Monday’s test failure delays but does not derail those plans.

The investigation into the BE-4 explosion will hopefully identify the weak points in the engine design and pave the way for improvements. Setbacks are essential learning experiences when developing new rocket technology. As NASA has proven over decades of spaceflight, failure can often set the stage for future success. Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin will undoubtedly channel that mindset as they continue working toward the debut of the powerful new BE-4 engine.

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