As Blue Origin nears the critical point of delivering 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 is said to be leaving Blue to pursue his “many” interests and hobbies outside of work.
“During his time at Blue, John led the team to support eight New Shepard missions powered by BE-3PM engines, countless hot fire tests, and made progress on multiple engines development programs,” Smith wrote. “He also built a world-class Engines team, recruiting some of the best talent in the business.”
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 numerous challenges faced by the engineers and technicians working to build and test BE-4 development engines included being “hardware poor.”
During his tenure, Vilja hired Linda Cova to serve as his deputy. She will now lead, at least on an interim basis, the Engines team at Blue Origin. Cova came to 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 lost out 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 the BE-4 development program in sight. However, a Blue Origin spokesperson said Vilja’s departure would have no effect on the production of BE-4 engines.
According to company sources, the first two BE-4 flight engines are in final production at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Washington. The first of these engines is scheduled to be shipped to a test site in May for “acceptance testing” to ensure its flight readiness. A second should follow in reasonably short order. On this schedule, Blue Origin could conceivably deliver both flight 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—have been performing well in tests.
Upon 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 anticipates that Vulcan’s debut launch will occur in 2022. However, a summertime delivery would be a very tight schedule for United Launch Alliance.
There is increasing pressure to demonstrate the readiness of Vulcan, which will carry a small lunar mission for Astrobotic on its first launch. Originally scheduled to debut in 2020, Vulcan is expected to play a major role in US national security launches during the mid-2020s. However, due to delays, the US Space Force has already had to move the first military mission assigned to Vulcan, designated USSF-51, onto an Atlas 5 rocket.
The war in Ukraine has added further incentive to get Vulcan flying. There are a finite amount of Atlas V missions before the retirement of the rocket, which uses Russian-made RD-180 engines. The US military is eager to move its missions to vehicles made in the United States. At present, the only alternative the US Space Force has for medium- and heavy-lift is the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets built by SpaceX, which use American-made Merlin engines.