First launch of ULA’s Vulcan on schedule for 2021


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From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
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Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the company is on track to transition as planned from its Atlas 5 and Delta rockets to its new Vulcan rocket.

Just five Delta IV Heavy launches remain on the manifest, all NRO launches procured under the block buy Phase 1 methodology. Bruno expects the final Delta launch to occur in 2023 or 2024.

The workhorse of the ULA fleet, Atlas V, is expected to retire on a similar timeframe. Bruno says the launcher could be “done as early as 2022, or as late as 2024.” Atlas V will have to continue operations until its replacement, Vulcan, can be human-rated to launch the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

…The first flight of Vulcan Centaur is on track for early 2021, with the first flight vehicle under construction, and more vehicles in flow, in ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Vulcan’s debut launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the moon for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. A second launch is currently planned for later that year, which will satisfy the Air Force certification requirement for Vulcan to launch military missions.

Bruno’s report is also good news for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, since both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in their first stage. If ULA is on schedule, than Blue Origin also likely to be on schedule, meaning that come 2021 or so the U.S. will have at least three companies (including SpaceX) capable of putting large payloads into orbit. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is developing its OmegA rocket, which will compete for the same business.

The article also talks about the military’s launch procurement program, which supposedly will pick two of these launch companies to provide all military launches through the 2020s. That program however is certain to fail, as it will blacklist all other viable companies from bidding on military launches. I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

And that is as it should be. Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

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13 comments

  • Tom Billings

    “Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway.”

    There is a long-sustained bureacractic why, and there is, as always, a political why.

    The bureaucratic why is security, not just from launch mishaps losing more money on the satellite than saved on the launch, but from the long tradition, back to 1959, of keeping launcher information from allowing “the socialist camp” analysts from calculating what our reconsats could see. This is because the launcher was always the basic constraint on Mass and dimensions of the highly classified payloads. Once all reconsats were placed under what became the NRO, this became a near fetish with rocket buys for launching payloads. The less known about the launcher elsewhere, the less info for analytical calculations, and the more people were forced into guesswork about what we knew.

    It is notable that if/when the mass production of a proliferated set of modular military assets becomes a first US stratagem in the contest between Space Force and PLASSF, such calculations will become more problematical. This is because continual overhead coverage from reconsats in all bandwidths will mean that the dodges that worked, using those calculations, before, won’t work nearly so well in the future.

    Then, there is, as always in a politically funded program, the political why. The maintenance of space workers jobs in Northern Alabama is vital to military budgets as long as Senator Shelby Chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. He has made that plain. If too many options are available for launches, then those in Alabama cannot be guaranteed a future “position” under their great Patron. With 2 options, the split can keep keep happy alabama voters coming to the polls. With 3, that is much more difficult. With 13, it would be impossible.

    2 options are the firebreak against the market.

  • Richard M

    I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

    I wish I could be so sanguine as you, Bob, but I’m not. All legal and political efforts to revisit this program have, so far, failed miserably.

    It seems inevitable that the Phase II awards are going to ULA and SpaceX, and probably in that order, too.

    That said, I don’t fear for Blue Origin’s survival. They already have 9 launch contracts inked, and, of course, Jeff Bezos’s billions. Hopefully Phase III will be structured in a more open way.

  • Richard M: If SpaceX does not get chosen as one of those two companies, you can bet it will sue, and it will win, as it did before when the Air Force tried to prevent it from bidding on launch contracts, wanting to give all the work exclusively to ULA.

    The result of that court victory is clearly outlined in the linked article:

    Since Phase 1A began in April 2016, fourteen national security launch contracts have been awarded as part of the program. Five of them, including two AFSPC missions, two SBIRS GEO launches, and the NRO Silent Barker mission, have been awarded to ULA. The nine other missions went to SpaceX, including five GPS-III missions, two AFSPC missions, and two NRO launches.

    I would also expect Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman to take the same legal action, both of whom have been given substantial military funds to help them develop their rockets to military specifications.

    And in the unlikely case the military does not pick ULA (stop laughing please), you can bet they will sue also.

    And I think they will all win their court cases, without problem. The government is not supposed to play favorites in its bidding process, especially when there are clearly qualified bidders that it is purposely excluding.

  • Richard M

    Hi Bob,

    Well, I do share (if it wasn’t apparent) your concerns about the structuring of the entire Phase II program, which looks suspiciously like it should be re-titled the ULA WorkForce Preservation Program, so I hope against hope that you are right. It’s just that Blue Origin’s efforts to crack the thing open through legal and administrative action have fallen flat so far, and their congressional allies (Chris Smith et al) clearly have not been strong enough to force it politically. Yet.

    Now that said, SpaceX is going to have a stronger programmatic and, uh, *moral* case, if you will, over Blue Origin or Northrop, because the two launchers it is bidding are a) already flying, and b) already certified. It is in fact the ONLY bidder that can make that claim. And since the record of both rockets is spotless at this point, it is hard to see how the Space Force can’t have SpaceX in pole position now. (The fact that they’re also the cheapest is honestly icing on the cake.)

    I was actually just reading the NSF article through for the first time, and I was *also struck* by that passage you quote, because I had never seen the numbers tallied up before. I did not realize SpaceX had done so well in Phase 1A awards. And then, note what Burghardt says right after that about NASA contracts: “Over that same time period, ten other missions for the US government have been awarded to the two launch providers. Four NASA missions were awarded to ULA, and six to SpaceX.” Mr. Musk is doing pretty darned well now in government contracts, and why shouldn’t he? He’s got a very reliable launcher family now, and it’s dirt cheap.

    Well, we’re going to find out soon enough. I expect ULA and SpaceX to get the awards, and (like you) I expect the other companies to break out their lawyers. We’ll see what happens.

  • Richard M: Note that if ULA and SpaceX are chosen, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman will have strong cases because the military gave them so much development money, money they did not give to SpaceX.

  • A. Nonymous

    NRO needs to seriously start thinking about what a reconnaissance satellite with a ~9m mirror would look like. And whether a separate military-only Starlink constellation with military chips/software would be necessary to achieve similar results on SIPRNet.

  • Jim Davis

    Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

    Bob, I’m not understanding your concern here.

    As I understand matters, the government is not restricting the number of bidders. It is just saying that only two of the bidders will be awarded contracts. A bidder might be upset that they weren’t awarded a contract, and might actually sue over the matter, but that is just business as usual. There is nothing illegal about the government awarding two contracts or even one contract if it was willing to take the risk of going all in on a single contractor. Indeed, this is the norm.

    Are you saying that all bidders should be awarded a contract? Or that certain bidders should not be awarded a contract? Or am I misunderstanding your point altogether?

  • Jim Davis: It is my understanding that the military plans to make a decision to pick only two companies as their launch providers for most of the 2020s. Bids from no one else will be accepted.

    In other words, they will choose two companies as their official providers, and everyone else will left in the lurch.

  • Jim Davis

    It is my understanding that the military plans to make a decision to pick only two companies as their launch providers for most of the 2020s. Bids from no one else will be accepted.

    So if I understand you correctly, you want the government to have a separate bidding process for each individual launch instead of having one bidding process for a block of launches as they are doing now. Indeed, if I understand you correctly, you believe it is illegal for the government to put a block of launches up for bid.

    Am I close?

    In other words, they will choose two companies as their official providers, and everyone else will left in the lurch.

    That’s called losing, Bob. There are winning bidders and losing bidders. The losers are “left in the lurch”. I’m not grasping your problem with this concept.

  • Jim Davis: No you are not close.

    I don’t think it illegal for the government to put a bunch of launches up for bid, as long as the bid is for a very specific known satellites/launches. What the Air Force (now Space Force) wants to do is certify only two companies they will allow to bid on future as yet determined launches, for the next seven to eight years. I think in court this process will lose, as it unfairly favors companies in an a priori manner.

    It is also stupid. The military should always be willing to take as many bids as possible, for each launch. Limiting itself to only two providers not only limits the options, it will guarantee higher costs.

    Meanwhile, everyone gets a chance to win a bid, and can’t complain if they lose.

  • Lee S

    I don’t understand the problem… In mother Russia everyone is allowed to bid… As long as it is Roscosmos…
    Seriously though… It’s kinda strange to have a limit in the amount of launch services that are even allowed to bid on any given contract…. All our politics aside, if true, something stinks here… Why deny the chance to anyone to provide a cheaper or better service? Even this socialist is left stroking my beard and pondering why???

  • Zed_WEASEL

    A. Nonymous: NRO needs to seriously start thinking about what a reconnaissance satellite with a ~9m mirror would look like. And whether a separate military-only Starlink constellation with military chips/software would be necessary to achieve similar results on SIPRNet.

    There is no need for the spooks to think about what an imaging bird with ~8m mirror would look like. They just have to visit Boca Chica TX.

    AIUI the Starlink Constellation have very high encryption level with evolving proprietary hardware & software. The military hardware & software might already be a few generations behind. After all part of Starlink’s target consumers are stock traders.

    Also why would you want a smaller separate Military Starlink-like Constellation. Presuming that any such Constellation will not match the Starlink Constellation’s current planned full deployment number of ~42000 birds. It will more practical to just pre-buy & spot-buy bandwidth from the Starlink Constellation for operations. Adversaries will have to take out a large fraction of the Starlink Constellation to degrade it’s capabilities. A smaller separate satellite constellation of at the most several hundred birds could be degraded much more easily.

    In event of a major incident the Starlink Constellation could be temporary federalized as the alternate US government satellite communications & surveillence network.

  • pzatchok

    The military doesn’t need a starlink type system.
    Starlink is built so the customer can use a device small enough to fit in their hand to communicate around the world.

    The military just needs a high flying drone to boost hand held signals to a geo stationary satellite or ship farther away.

    Drones can be replaced in hours and cost far far less then a satellite network.

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