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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.

Pioneer cover

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.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • 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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