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ULA wins private lunar launch contract

Capitalism in space: Astrobotic, the private company building a lunar lander for NASA, has chosen ULA’s Vulcan rocket for its launch vehicle.

Astrobotic announced today that it selected United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Vulcan Centaur rocket in a competitive commercial procurement to launch its Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon in 2021.

“We are so excited to sign with ULA and fly Peregrine on Vulcan Centaur. This contract with ULA was the result of a highly competitive commercial process, and we are grateful to everyone involved in helping us make low-cost lunar transportation possible. When we launch the first lunar lander from American soil since Apollo, onboard the first Vulcan Centaur rocket, it will be a historic day for the country and commercial enterprise,” said Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton.

This is the second contract announcement for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, with the first being Sierra Nevada’s announcement that it would use Vulcan for Dream Chaser’s first six flights.

Isn’t competition wonderful? It appears to me that ULA must be offering very cut-rate deals to get these contracts, since the rocket has not yet flown while SpaceX’s already operational Falcon Heavy (with three successful launches) could easily do the job and is a very inexpensive rocket to fly. These lower prices, instigated by competition and freedom, will mean that funding missions to the Moon will continue to become more likely, even if NASA and the federal government fail to get their act together.


Conscious Choice cover

Now available in hardback and paperback as well as ebook!


From the press release: In this ground-breaking new history of early America, historian Robert Zimmerman not only exposes the lie behind The New York Times 1619 Project that falsely claims slavery is central to the history of the United States, he also provides profound lessons about the nature of human societies, lessons important for Americans today as well as for all future settlers on Mars and elsewhere in space.

Conscious Choice: The origins of slavery in America and why it matters today and for our future in outer space, is a riveting page-turning story that documents how slavery slowly became pervasive in the southern British colonies of North America, colonies founded by a people and culture that not only did not allow slavery but in every way were hostile to the practice.  
Conscious Choice does more however. In telling the tragic history of the Virginia colony and the rise of slavery there, Zimmerman lays out the proper path for creating healthy societies in places like the Moon and Mars.


“Zimmerman’s ground-breaking history provides every future generation the basic framework for establishing new societies on other worlds. We would be wise to heed what he says.” —Robert Zubrin, founder of founder of the Mars Society.


All editions are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and all book vendors, with the ebook priced at $5.99 before discount. The ebook can also be purchased direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit, in which case you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


Autographed printed copies are also available at discount directly from me (hardback $24.95; paperback $14.95; Shipping cost for either: $5.00). Just email me at zimmerman @ nasw dot org.


  • Dick Eagleson

    I think the key take-away from the press release is that bit about it being “the first Vulcan Centaur rocket” (emphasis mine).

    If Vulcan is held to the same USAF certification criteria as Falcon 9 was – and there really isn’t any wiggle room on that with SpaceX being plenty big enough now to put ULA in the ground, legally, if any obvious favoritism is applied – then Vulcan is going to need three launches before it can be cleared to carry NatSec payloads.

    The recent Dream Chaser announcement noted that the first Dream Chaser Cargo spacecraft would be payload number two for Vulcan – and a second such might well be payload number three. But either SNC wasn’t going to have Dream Chaser Cargo ready to go in time to be payload number one, or wasn’t willing to risk being the payload for Vulcan’s maiden voyage.

    Enter Astrobotic. They likely got quoted the new standard F9 launch price of $50 million for a dedicated launch by SpaceX. ULA must have come in with a lower bid.

    Considered in isolation, this would be a loss-making deal. But ULA needed to fly the first Vulcan as part of the three missions needed for certification whether or not it could find a payload to put aboard. So ULA – very wisely – took what it could get to minimize the loss on the first Vulcan mission and Astrobotic got a heavily-discounted trip to the Moon for its lander. Win-win.

  • Richard M

    “It appears to me that ULA must be offering very cut-rate deals to get these contracts, since the rocket has not yet flown while SpaceX’s already operational Falcon Heavy (with three successful launches) could easily do the job and is a very inexpensive rocket to fly.”

    Oh, I think that’s the sense we’re hearing from sources, as well as the implication of SNC’s public remarks. I think you’d have to offer a haircut for the first certification flight of *any* new launcher.

    That said, the cost differential may not have been quite so massive to begin with. The Cargo Dream Chaser is a big payload; it *might* fit within the mass limits of a Falcon 9 expendable; but with the additional expendable cargo module, it won’t fit in the standard Falcon fairing, so SNC would have to pay extra to have one built, and that would add several million right there.

    Still, it really does sound like this was a high comfort level with ULA decision – their relationship goes back a long way, and that kind of thing matters in big corporate decisions like this. Maybe that’s worth a premium to SNC. Even so, they can thank SpaceX that the final price they got, whatever it was, has got to be significantly lower than it would have been if SpaceX did not exist.

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