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ULA’s Vulcan rocket successfully places payload in orbit on first launch

Vulcan at liftoff.
Vulcan at liftoff.

After four years of delay, mostly caused by delays at Blue Origin in delivering the two BE-4 engines used in the first stage, ULA’s Vulcan rocket finally completed its first launch early on January 8, 2024, lifting off from Cape Canaveral and successfully placing Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander into orbit.

As of posting the upper stage had just deployed Peregrine, which will leave Earth orbit in about four days using its own engines. The upper stage has one more burn to send it into solar orbit, carrying the ashes of numerous people for the company Celestis.

The 2024 launch race:

3 SpaceX
1 India
1 China

For ULA, this launch is a very big deal. It is the first of two required in order for the Space Force to certify the rocket for future military launches. It also positions the company to begin the many launches that Amazon has awarded it to place into orbit a large percentage of that company’s Kuiper internet satellite constellation, assuming of course Blue Origin can deliver on schedule the many BE-4 engines that ULA will require.

This launch will also likely lead to the sale of ULA. There have been numerous rumors about this sale for several months. The company is a joint partnership of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and depending on who buys the company the sale will significantly reshape the launch market. There have been many rumors about the buyer — Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, and L3Harris to mention just three — but none are confirmed.

For Blue Origin, the launch tells us that the company’s BE-4 engine works. As noted, it still remains unknown whether Blue Origin can manufacture these engines on an assembly line basis. Each Vulcan launch will require two engines, with at least six launches targeted for 2024. In addition, Blue Origin hopes to begin launching its New Glenn rocket this year, and that will require seven engines per launch. Thus, at minimum the company must produce almost twenty engines this year, probably more to meet the schedules of both rockets. We shall find out if Blue Origin can make this happen based on whether ULA’s second Vulcan launch happens as planned in April 2024, launching Sierra Space’s first reuseable Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity. That spacecraft will bring cargo to and from ISS, once it completes this first demo mission.

If that launch gets delayed because of BE-4 delays, it will tell us that both ULA and Blue Origin face more problems in the next year.

Peregrine landing site
Peregrine’s landing site

For Astrobotic, the launch allows it to finally send Peregrine to the Moon, with a target landing date
February 23, 2024. If successful, it will be one of two private American lunar landers heading to the Moon this spring, with Intuitive Machines Nova-C lander scheduled for launch on February 10, 2024, with its landing about a week later. It is taking a more direct route to get to the Moon and thus will try landing first.

The map to the right shows its targeted landing site, in the Gruithuisen Domes region in the northwest quadrant of the Moon’s visible hemisphere.

A third lunar lander, Japan’s SLIM lander, is already on its way to the Moon, with a scheduled landing January 24, 2024.

All three missions have scientific goals, but all three are first and foremost engineering test missions, proving out the technologies of each lander’s design. They if they reach the Moon they will be a success even if something goes wrong during landing. The knowledge gained will be applied to later missions, already planned.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Andi

    Minor edit in third paragraph after launch tally: “the company’s BE-4 engine works”

  • MDN

    Also of note is that Vulcan is now the 2nd methane powered rocket to achieve orbit, and the 1st American rocket to do so.

    So Kudos to ULA and Blue Origins, but great as they are I still expect SpaceX will make these achievements seem pretty trivial before year’s end.

  • sippin_bourbon

    On one hand, it is good to see they finally got this off the ground. I am always happy to see success in this industry.
    I think the ULA sale is a sure thing, but the success here will certainly influence the closing price.
    I am also a bit of a fan of the Sierra Nevada spaceplane. It would be neat to see this work.

    On the other hand, it is another non-reusable rocket, and represents older tech. In a conversation, a friend likened it to bi-planes vs mono-wing planes. Bi-planes still have a place, in select use cases, but aviation moved on. (It is not the best analogy but you get the idea.)

    They have partial re-use planned, of course, but with the sale pending, I have not heard much about the “SMART” option and it’s status.
    I am also curious. Rocket Lab attempted the helicopter recovery option for Electron, and then abandon the same as too risky. Is ULA still looking to capture the engine module in this fashion.

    By comparison, SpaceX landing the entire booster appears to be a much lower risk. If it fails, the booster is lost, but it the stand off ensures no harm to persons. Catastrophic failure with a helicopter risks SMART module, aircraft and a heli crew.

  • Richard M

    If that launch gets delayed because of BE-4 delays, it will tell us that both ULA and Blue Origin face more problems in the next year.

    According to NSF’s story this weekend, Blue Origin has delivered two more flight engines, which are currently undergoing acceptance testing. If that works out without difficulty, then ULA ought to be in position to launch Dream Chaser on Cert-2 in April – assuming, of course, that the Dream Chaser is ready to launch.

    Of course, two flight engines per quarter is adequate for ULA *right now*, but obviously that will not be the case for long, as they start to build toward the 25 launch cadence per year they have promised. The BO engine plant in Decatur really has to step up their production – especially since they are gonna have New Glenn rockets to equip, too!

  • Cloudy

    How will Blue Origin get enough customers for 25 flights per year? The Kuiper satellite constellation? There are some payloads that will work better with Vulcan than Falcon 9, but not that many. The US federal government will give them enough to survive, but that’s it. If and when Starship becomes fully operational, they will be completely dependent on life support from the government or from Bezos(though Blue Origin). If New Glen becomes fully operational, it will probably be game over. Bezos won’t have to buy them out, they will simply fail. This rocket would have been an impressive achievement in the pre-SpaceX era, though.

  • Cloudy: Blue Origin isn’t aiming for 25 flights per year. ULA is, and that is largely based on the big contract it already has signed with Amazon for the Kuiper project, totalling almost 50 launches. Nine of those launches use the Atlas-5 and are ready to go once Amazon provides the satellites.

    ULA also has military contracts in the bag that first require it to have two successful launches first. #1 was this launch. #2 will be the Dream Chaser launch in April.

    As for Blue Origin, it also has a contract with Amazon, for fewer launches, but when that will happen is utterly unknown.

  • Cloudy

    I meant “ULA” in the previous comment. Thanks.

  • Richard M

    I think we all appreciate that Vulcan Centaur is not really competitive with Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy – certainly not what SpaceX *could* charge for them, if they wanted to really stick it to ULA and everyone else. That would still be true even if they implement SMART recovery of the engine bay – which they might or might not do.

    What Vulcan Centaur *is* is a good deal cheaper to build and operate than the Atlas V and Delta IV lines. It’s also more capable than either. What it also is, is good enough to secure a pretty hefty launch manifest to get them through the 2020’s. Right now, they have on their order book:

    * 11 missions valued at $1.3 billion for NSSL Phase 2
    * 6 flights of Dream Chaser for Sierra Space
    * 38 launches for Amazon Kuiper

    And, there are more Space Force/NRO missions to come under Phase 2 . . . and, figure that ULA is going to get one of the two prime Lane 1 slots that will be awarded for NSSL Phase 3 later this year.

    So, whatever Vulcan’s virtues or limitations, it has enough business under contract to keep it quite busy for the next several years.

    Now, what happens after that is less clear. Even setting aside Starship, there are a number of new, mostly reusable, medium and heavy lift commercial rockets (Neutron, New Glenn, Terran R, Firefly MLV, Stoke) coming online over the next several years. Vulcan is going to have a harder time competing with all that to remain the premier “non-SpaceX launch provider.” But then, if Blue Origin ends up buying ULA, that could be a moot point, since one of those competing reusable rockets will be theirs (New Glenn). They might just choose to use Vulcan as a transitional vehicle, flying out its existing manifest and then replacing it with New Glenn when it’s ready. Stay tuned.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Thus, at minimum the company must produce almost twenty engines this year, probably more to meet the schedules of both rockets. We shall find out if Blue Origin can make this happen based on whether ULA’s second Vulcan launch happens as planned in April 2024, …

    As I recall, someone here a few months back reported that Blur Origin had reached a rate of 2 BE4 engines per quarter, meaning eight per year. As this shows an increasing production rate, it is possible that they can reach the necessary manufacture rate. It would be better for both companies to start reusing engines and boosters sooner rather than later. That way, the production rate need not be so high.

    … on whether ULA’s second Vulcan launch happens as planned in April 2024, launching Sierra Space’s first reuseable Dream Chaser mini-shuttle, dubbed Tenacity. That spacecraft will bring cargo to and from ISS, once it completes this first demo mission.

    I am eager for this new space plane to start operations. Not only will we have a third commercial cargo craft, but it will finally start bringing in steady revenue for Sierra Space.

    Boeing is missing this from its Starliner manned craft, but we should see this one also become operational in the next few months (although we have been saying that for four or five years). It will be nice to see Boeing finally cross the finish line in its race with SpaceX.

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