Blue Origin, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' commercial space company, has partnered with the United Launch Alliance to develop a new rocket engine called the BE-4, set to make its first flight in 2019. United Launch Alliance, or ULA, is a joint venture by defense contractor Lockheed Martin and aerospace company Boeing, which recently won one of two contracts to develop a spacecraft capable of shuttling astronauts to the ISS. ULA's Atlas and Delta lines of rockets are used by both NASA and the US military, but it's been criticized for using Russian-built rocket engines, especially after sanctions were declared earlier this year. ULA said this summer that it had signed contracts with "multiple American companies" to investigate the feasibility of developing new designs, and Blue Origin may have been one of those companies.
The current contract covers a four-year development period, entering "full-scale testing" in 2016; Blue Origin has apparently already been developing the BE-4 rocket engine for three years and is currently testing components. ULA says it's not a "direct replacement" for the current RD-180 engines, but it will be integrated into future generations of rocket, and the frequent references to "American" components suggest that this is an attempt to move away from Russian products. It will supposedly be cheaper, though the price isn't given, and Blue Origin plans to eventually sell it to manufacturers besides ULA.
Founded in 2000, Blue Origin has been more secretive than competitors like SpaceX. After buying up land in Texas for undisclosed purposes, Bezos revealed in 2005 that he was planning to build a testing range for reusable rockets that could travel to low-Earth orbit. Since then, the company has remained quiet about its progress. It was an early member of NASA's commercial cargo and crew program, receiving a $3.7 million contract in 2010 to develop its New Shepard launch system. According to NASA's site, Blue Origin has received a total of $25.6 million, but while it remains a partner, it wasn't funded in the latest rounds of the program.
The latest major milestone for Blue Origin came in December of 2013, when the company revealed it had successfully test-fired a BE-3 rocket engine at its Texas base. "Blue Origin has made steady progress since the start of our partnership under the first Commercial Crew Development round," said NASA commercial spaceflight development director Phil McAlister at the time. The company, however, failed to convince the US government to give it access to the Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A, which was officially leased by SpaceX in April — SpaceX founder Elon Musk had earlier pushed for the decision by saying he would more likely "discover unicorns dancing in the flame duct" than see Blue Origin come out with a workable spacecraft that could take advantage of the pad. Now, partnered with ULA, it's immediately become a lot more influential.