Capitalism in space: ULA’s first complete Vulcan core stage, meant at this point only for testing launch procedures, has arrived at Cape Canaveral.
After connecting the launch platform and the rocket to gas and electrical systems at the pad, ULA engineers will run the Vulcan booster and the ground infrastructure through a series of exercises, culminating in loading of thousands of gallons of cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen into the rocket.
Once these tests are complete, the stage will be returned to ULA’s facility in Alabama to be refitted with flight worthy BE-4 engines so it can fly on a later mission. The engines presently attached are test engines.
ULA expects the first flightworthy BE-4 engines to be delivered by Blue Origin by the summer. These will then be incorporated into the first Vulcan to fly (hopefully before the end of the year) and carrying Astrobotic’s unmanned Peregrine lunar lander.
That rocket, as will all Vulcan rockets for the foreseeable future, will be entirely expendable. Though ULA says it intends at some point to recover for reuse the engines of the core stage, they have not delineated a time schedule for when that will happen.
At this point the only customer ULA has for this rocket is the government — especially the military. Vulcan cannot compete in price with SpaceX’s rockets, so I doubt any commercial satellite company will be much interested in it. The military will pay the extra bucks, because it wants more than one launch company for redundancy, and it has already committed to buying Vulcans for the next five years.
Of course, that long term commitment to Vulcan by the military will likely change if other cheaper rockets enter the market. At the present the military is limiting bidding on future launches to just SpaceX and ULA. That cannot hold up in court if other viable rocket companies wish to bid. Expect those new companies to do what SpaceX did when the Air Force refused to let it bid on military launches about five years ago, sue, and win in court.
At that point ULA’s an entirely expendable Vulcan will be very vulnerable to losing its last customer. ULA must make this rocket reusable or it will die as a company.
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