Today, private spaceflight venture Blue Origin announced its plans to manufacture the company’s new rocket engine, the BE-4, at a state-of-the-art facility in Huntsville, Alabama. It’s an interesting move for the company, which has been mostly developing the engine at its headquarters in Kent, Washington, and testing the hardware in Texas. But the benefits for Blue Origin are both practical and political.
On the surface, it’s a seemingly innocuous decision meant to capitalize on Huntsville’s decades-long history of rocket development. The city is home to NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where the Saturn V rocket was developed and where NASA’s future massive deep-space rocket, the Space Launch System, will also be worked on. Plus, many private space contractors are based in Huntsville, making spaceflight a key part of the city’s economy and a huge jobs creator. It’s why Huntsville has been nicknamed Rocket City.
“Alabama is a great state for aerospace manufacturing and we are proud to produce America’s next rocket engine right here in Rocket City,” Robert Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, said in a statement.
But the move is most likely motivated by politics as well, given Blue Origin’s plans for the BE-4. The company ultimately hopes to use seven BE-4 engines to power its future massive rocket called the New Glenn, which is supposed to launch sometime before 2020. But that’s not the only rocket that the BE-4 could fly on. The United Launch Alliance — a company responsible for launching most of the satellites for the US military — is developing a new rocket called Vulcan, and it needs new US-made engines for the vehicle.
ULA has made it very clear that the BE-4 is the first choice to power the Vulcan, and the company is even partially funding the development of the BE-4. That would be a huge contract for Blue Origin, which is still a fairly young player in the realm of aerospace. The problem, though, is that this isn’t a totally done deal. ULA is also considering a second option in case the BE-4 doesn’t work out: an engine being developed by longtime manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne called the AR-1. Aerojet is only meant to be Plan B for ULA. But it has one advantage that Blue Origin didn’t have until now: it’s building its engine in Huntsville, Alabama — and that comes with some very key political protection.
Because Huntsville’s economy is so wrapped up in aerospace, Alabama’s lawmakers want to keep it that way, and a few of them are in key positions to get what they want. For instance, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) is the chairman of the subcommittee responsible for appropriating funds for NASA, and he is constantly fighting to keep the Space Launch System well funded. For fiscal year 2017, Shelby helped to secure $2.15 billion for the rocket’s development, nearly $1 billion more than what was in the president’s budget request. Alabama politicians also raise a fuss whenever they see a threat to any of Alabama’s spaceflight business. Any perceived cuts to SLS funding, and Shelby gets very upset and criticizes officials for not making the rocket a priority.
That same “Alabama first” mentality has trickled down to the competition over which engines the Vulcan will use. Since Aerojet is making the AR-1 in Huntsville, a few Alabama politicians have tried to come up with innovative ways of influencing ULA’s decision. A good example came earlier this year, when two Alabama congressmen wrote a letter to the acting US Air Force secretary about the Vulcan’s engine selection, as Ars Technica reported. In the letter, they argued that since ULA receives millions of dollars from the US government to develop the Vulcan, the US government should be involved in the engine selection process. Translation: Alabama lawmakers didn’t want ULA to just pick Blue Origin and leave Aerojet in the dust.
But now that Blue Origin plans to build the BE-4 in Huntsville, there’s perhaps less incentive for Alabama politicians to favor Aerojet over Blue Origin. In fact, the Alabama Governor’s office, the Alabama Department of Commerce, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and many more economic partners all worked together to recruit Blue Origin to the state, according to today’s announcement. If anything, Blue Origin will also be under the protective Alabama umbrella now, and it could probably use some protection: Blue Origin suffered a setback a few months ago when it lost a set of key BE-4 engine hardware during testing. It’s unclear how much the development process was disrupted, but it’s possible the failure may have slightly jeopardized Blue Origin’s status as the frontrunner in the engine race.
Of course, Blue Origin probably also had some nice economic incentives to move to the state that factored into the decision. And the company will definitely have a good support system there. Blue Origin’s move to Huntsville is supposed to generate 342 jobs at the new facility, located in Cummings Research Park, with salaries averaging $75,000. And given the city’s history, Blue Origin should have no problem finding aerospace experts in the area. Phil Larson, a former science advisor to the Obama administration and a former SpaceX spokesperson, pointed out that SpaceX, in part, moved to Los Angeles because it had the largest concentration of aerospace engineers in the country at the time. “Alabama has that same sort of strong technical work force,” he tells The Verge.
The move will likely make many in Alabama happy since Blue Origin expects to make $200 million in capital investment in the state. Of course, the company says it will only build the facility once ULA officially selects the BE-4 as the Vulcan’s main engine. Perhaps now there will be fewer people standing in Blue Origin’s way. At the very least, the company seems to have made an ally of Sen. Shelby.
"This announcement today is excellent news for our state,” Shelby said in a statement. “I am pleased to see Blue Origin investing in Alabama, and I look forward to working with them and other businesses to continue boosting economic development opportunities.”