enlarge † Jeff Bezos (right), founder of Blue Origin and Amazon.com, and Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, show a small-scale version of the BE-4 rocket engine at a press conference in 2014.
As Blue Origin approaches the critical point of providing flight-ready BE-4 rocket engines to United Launch Alliance, the engineer in charge of the company’s rocket engine program has decided to leave.
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith recently informed employees of the departure of John Vilja, the senior vice president of Blue Engines. In Smith’s email to employees, obtained by Ars, Vilja would leave Blue to pursue his “many” interests and hobbies outside of work.
“During his time at Blue, John led the team in support of eight New Shepard missions powered by BE-3PM engines, numerous hot fire tests, and made progress on multiple engine development,” Smith wrote. “He also built a world-class Engines team and recruited some of the best talent in the industry.”
Sources familiar with Vilja’s work confirmed that he was a good manager and engineer who helped get the BE-4 rocket engine program back on track. As Ars reported last August, before Vilja’s arrival, the many challenges faced by the engineers and technicians building and testing BE-4 development engines were “bad hardware”.
During his tenure, Vilja hired Linda Cova to serve as his deputy. She will now lead Blue Origin’s Engines team, at least on an interim basis. Cova joined the company in 2021 after working on various propulsion programs at Aerojet Rocketdyne for 35 years. Among her duties, she led the development of the AR1 engine, which it lost to the BE-4 engine in a competition held by United Launch Alliance for its new Vulcan rocket.
It was not immediately clear why Vilja left Blue Origin with the end of BE-4’s development program in sight. However, a spokesperson for Blue Origin said Vilja’s departure would have no effect on production of BE-4 engines.
According to company sources, the first two BE-4 flight engines are in final production at Blue Origin’s plant in Kent, Washington. The first of these engines is planned to be shipped to a test site in May for “acceptance testing” to ensure flight readiness. A second should follow shortly. Under this schedule, Blue Origin could deliver both aircraft engines to United Launch Alliance in June or July. Sources at Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance say development versions of the BE-4 — which are nearly identical to the flight versions — performed well in tests.
After receiving the engines, United Launch Alliance plans to install two of the BE-4s on the Vulcan rocket for a debut launch as soon as possible. On Tuesday, at the Satellite 2022 conference in the District of Columbia, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno said he still expects Vulcan’s debut launch to take place in 2022. However, a summer delivery would be a very tight schedule for United Launch Alliance.
Pressure is mounting to demonstrate the readiness of Vulcan, which will perform a small lunar mission for Astrobotic on its first launch. Originally slated for its 2020 debut, Vulcan is expected to play a major role in US national security launches in the mid-2020s. However, delays have already forced the US Space Force to move its first military mission assigned to Vulcan, dubbed USSF-51, on an Atlas 5 rocket.
The war in Ukraine has provided an additional incentive to get Vulcan flying. There are a finite number of Atlas V missions before the missile’s retirement, which uses Russian-made RD-180 engines. The US military is eager to move its missions to vehicles made in the United States. Right now, the only alternative the US Space Force has for medium and heavy payloads is the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets built by SpaceX, which use American-made Merlin engines.