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Air Force sends letter of concern about Vulcan to ULA

According to a report yesterday [behind a paywall], the Air Force has sent a letter of concern to ULA and its joint owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, about the long delays getting its new Vulcan rocket operational.

When the military chose in 2021 ULA and SpaceX to be its two launch providers for the first half of the 2020s, it expected ULA to complete 60% of the launches and SpaceX 40%. It also expected Vulcan to being launching within a year or two, at the latest.

Instead, the first launch of Vulcan did not occur until 2024, and its second launch — required by the military before it will allow Vulcan to launch its payloads — won’t occur until late this year. Worse, the military has a large backlog of launches it has assigned to Vulcan that need to launch quickly.

“I am growing concerned with ULA’s ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rocket and scale its launch cadence to meet our needs,” [Air Force Assistant Secretary Frank] Calvelli wrote. “Currently there is military satellite capability sitting on the ground due to Vulcan delays. ULA has a backlog of 25 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) Phase 2 Vulcan launches on contract.”

These 25 launches, Calvelli notes, are due to be completed by the end of 2027. He asked Boeing and Lockheed to complete an “independent review” of United Launch Alliance’s ability to scale manufacturing of its Vulcan rockets and meet its commitments to the military. Calvelli also noted that Vulcan has made commitments to launch dozens of satellites for others over that period, a reference to a contract between United Launch Alliance and Amazon for Project Kuiper satellites.

ULA says that once operations ramp up, it plans to launch Vulcan twice a month. The Air Force doubts about whether that will be possible however are well founded. To meet that schedule ULA will need delivery per month of at least four BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, and so far there is no indication the Bezos company can meet that demand. Delays at Blue Origin in developing that engine are the main reason Vulcan is so far behind schedule in the first place.

In order to get Vulcan operational, ULA needs to fly a second time successfully. The second launch of Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle is booked for that flight, and was originally supposed to launch this spring. Tenacity however was not ready, as it is still undergoing final ground testing. The launch is now set for the fall, but both ULA and the Pentagon are discussing replacing it with a dummy payload should Tenacity experience any more delays.

The source of all of these problems points to Blue Origin. Not only has it been unable to deliver its BE-4 rocket engine on schedule — thus blocking Vulcan — the long delays in developing its own New Glenn orbital rocket (which uses seven BE-4 engines) has given the military fewer launch options. As a result the military has been left with only one rocket company, SpaceX, capable of launching its large payloads.

To put Blue Origin’s problems in perspective, for Blue Origin to finally achieve its many promises and get both Vulcan and New Glenn flying regularly, it will need to begin producing a minimum of 50 to 150 BE-4 engines per year, with two-thirds for its own New Glenn rocket. Right now all evidence suggests the company is having problems building two per year.

In other words, the Pentagon might send a letter of concern to ULA, but it should instead be focusing its ire on Blue Origin.

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

8 comments

  • Ray Van Dune

    The military should also have their USAF and USSF Secretaries have a chat with Joe Biden, and ask him to quit screwing around with SpaceX and let them do the launches required to develop the our next generation of boosters!

    But of course throwing our military (and Israel) under the bus is necessary for Joe to hang onto the Young Terrorist vote!

  • Tom D

    I wonder if SpaceX would sell their Raptor motors to ULA as a replacement for Blue Origin?

  • mkent

    I’m curious as to which national security payloads are stuck on the ground awaiting launch. As far as I can tell, it’s only USSF-106.

    USSF-106 is a relatively low-value technology demonstration mission that the Space Force wants to use as a pathfinder for a new launch vehicle. They did much the same thing for their first one or two Falcon 9 launches. So even if another launch vehicle were available, they’d still wait for Vulcan.

    There is, of course, GPS 3-7. The GPS constellation is currently as full as it can get. There are 24 operational satellites on orbit along with eight on-orbit spares. That’s as many on-orbit spares that there can be. In order to launch another one they’d have to disable one of the current spares. GPS III satellites can be launched by SpaceX should the need arise, but the eight on-orbit spares would probably last 5-10 years, so I highly doubt that will be necessary.

    We’re actually in a good spot as a country. As far as is known from public information, all of our constellations, military and civil, are at full strength.

  • Jay

    Tom D,
    Good question. I have not seen many performance numbers about the BE-4 published. The Raptor numbers are out there and the thrust values are close to the BE-4, but that’s about it. It would take same re-engineering of the Vulcan to take the Raptors. Of the payload mass to orbit numbers published, the Vulcan is in between a Falcon-9 and Falcon-Heavy in capability, but it uses SRBs as well.
    Of course the Falcon-9/Heavy first stages use the Merlin engines which use kerosene/LOX, while the Raptor and BE-4 engines use methane/LOX

    SpaceX could certainly deliver the engines in the quantity that they need. The y have demonstrated their manufacturing capabilities.

  • Jeff Wright

    Dwayne Day had a fine article (Burning Thunder) about Dynetics SRB replacement called Pyrios.

    Pyrios was to use two simplified Saturn V type F-1 engines and simple, rugged J-2 equipped upper stages (named Jarvis long before BO co-opted that name for NG’s upper stage).

    The whole idea of having two EELVs from two companies was what USAF wanted before ULA formed.

    Pyrios needs be restarted with Dynetics in the driver’s seat and ULA and Bruno shown the door.

  • James Street

    The genius of SpaceX is shown again for not just building rockets, rocket engines and Starlink satellites, but building rocket, rocket engine and Starlink satellite manufacturing systems. I wonder how they kept that objective from constantly being diluted.

    I’m reminded of this system design flow cartoon:
    https://thenamiracleoccurs.wordpress.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/miracle2.jpg

  • MDN

    Looks like there is a reason SpaceX has commissioned another drone ship. I expect the government hasn’t just been talking to ULA and Blue Origin, and have already started to slate a number of their priority missions over to SpaceX and the details of this will be announced later this year. Just a guess, but it’s what I’d be doing if I were in charge.

  • pzatchok

    Another drone ship in each ocean would be best. They can at least be used as back ups and kept in port until then.
    But Space X’s launch cadence is limited by the slowest portion of it. Its best they do not let that become the drone ships.

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