Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to make rocket engine for Boeing, Lockheed Martin

Amazon CEO's aerospace company enters into a partnership with the United Launch Alliance to develop BE-4, a rocket engine to replace Russian-made launch jets.

Nick Statt
Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
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Blue Origin's pusher escape system propelling its Crew Capsule in a test flight. Blue Origin

Blue Origin, the aerospace outfit owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, has entered into a partnership with the United Launch Alliance, the joint spaceflight venture of Boeing and defense contractor Lockheed Martin, to continue development of a new rocket engine for ULA's Atlas and Delta rocket lines.

Called BE-4, the engine has been in the works at Blue Origin for three years and is currently in testing at the company's West Texas facilities. ULA, founded in 2006, has supplied rockets to the US Department of Defense and NASA and will now co-fund the BE-4 project to accelerate its completion. The agreement is for a four-year development process with testing slated for 2016 and flight in 2019.

"This new collaboration will allow ULA to maintain the heritage, success and reliability of its rocket families -- Atlas and Delta -- while addressing the long-term need for a new domestic engine," reads Blue Origins' statement.

The word "domestic" is an important distinction to make, as ULA's rockets have previously relied on Russian-built engines. As conflict in Ukraine continues since Russia's annexation of Crimea in March, the US has heightened Russian sanctions numerous times in an effort to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw troops and ease tensions between Ukrainian and pro-Russia separatists factions.

It's not just engines, either. Since the discontinuation of the NASA shuttle program in 2011, the US has relied solely on Russian Soyuz rockets to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. This dependency, coupled with the increased diplomatic tussles caused by the conflict in Ukraine, has put significant strain on the US's relationship with Russia with regards to international spaceflight.

To that end, just yesterday NASA announced that it has awarded landmark contracts to Boeing and SpaceX, the aerospace company founded and run by Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk. With $4.2 billion for Boeing and $2.6 billion for SpaceX, NASA is helping fund the development and launch of manned spacecrafts to take passengers to and from low-Earth orbit, effectively cutting ties with Russian spaceflights even further.

The goal is to end partnerships with Russia by 2017, NASA said. Blue Origin, once an under-the-radar company that kept quiet for years as it developed its rocket technology, now is up onstage alongside aerospace's biggest players to help the US get back into orbit on its own.

Though that may not stop Musk from taking stabs at his fellow billionaire. Though Bezos has long dreamed of building an elaborate industry around space tourism, Blue Origin hasn't had the success enjoyed by SpaceX, which now has a storied history of successful contracts with NASA and an ambitious reusable rocket testing program.

When Bezos' outfit lost out to Musk's earlier this year to lease a freed up launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Musk said he was more likely to "discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct" than Blue Origin was likely to successfully scrap together a workable spacecraft that could dock with the ISS.