Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket


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Link here. Overall the rocket seems to be on track for its planned April 2021 launch, except it appears ULA has decided to do that launch without two new components of the rocket that previously were planned, delaying their implementation.

First, it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights. It seems that both companies want that engine to first fly on Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, whose first launch is not set until 2021 as well.

This delay in the engine’s use has me wondering whether ULA has gotten cold feet about Blue Origin and its engine. It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

In fact, the combination of increased hype and lack of progress has made Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos remind me increasingly of Virgin Galactic and Richard Branson, that team of endless unmet promises.

Second, it appears ULA has given the recovery and reuse of Vulcan’s first stage engines a very low priority. The technique they had chosen was to have the engines separate from the tanks and return to Earth by parafoil, protected by an inflatable heat shield. However,

A technology demonstration payload for the inflatable heat shield, which could also be used to deliver payloads to the surface of Mars, is slated to fly as a rideshare payload with NOAA’s JPSS-2 satellite aboard an Atlas V launch no earlier than 2022. [emphasis mine]

In other words, that reusable technology probably won’t be operational until well into the 2020s. Vulcan will likely be completely expendable for at least the first five years of its use.

ULA apparently has decided to take the safe technology route. Financially secure because of a $1 billion Air Force development contract to pay for Vulcan, combined with the military’s obvious desire to favor them in the awarding of future launch contracts, the company doesn’t have any incentive to innovate in any way to lower costs.

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8 comments

  • Andy J

    I think you’ve misread the article, they are still using the BE-4 but it won’t have flown prior to Vulcan’s debut. (The main thrust of the article is how much of Vulcan has previously flown and how this reduces the risks)

  • Tom D

    After reading the article I agree with Andy J. Vulcan will debut with BE-4 motors. There really isn’t any reasonable alternative. I’m not sure how cost competitive Vulcan will be with SpaceX, but it does look like an improvement over the Atlas and Delta rockets.

  • I looked at the article again, and recognize that you both have a point. At the same time, my sense remains from the article that it seems ULA is leaving its options open concerning the BE-4.

    I have thus changed one word so that the first sentence in the second paragraph now reads: “it appears that Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine might not power the rocket’s first stage in its initial flights.”

    The change is to replace the word “will” with “might.”

    Blue Origin might be proceeding with the BE-4, but I have seen too many stories that make me worried about its development. Until I see some real action, such as some full duration engine tests I will remain skeptical.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “It certainly seems to me that progress at Blue Origin has slowed considerably in the past year. For example, they promised manned flights of New Shepard that did not happen, and testing on the BE-4 seems to have gone underground.

    Blue Origin reminds me a bit of a company working on a cost plus project. Since Bezos is willing to put up a billion dollars a year, there does not seem to be any hurry for completion. I like SpaceX’s rapid development philosophy much better, but that philosophy is necessary because there is not an endless supply of money available.

    Blue Origin may be falling into the same trap that American defense contractors fell into over the past half century or so. Because of an endless stream of money, getting product operational does not seem to be the highest priority. Virgin Galactic’s problem seems to be that they are married to an engine that does not give the necessary performance, but I don’t know what delays development at Blue Origin. It could be that they buckle to people who ask for more time, unlike SpaceX, which told its Starlink team to get their initial satellites on orbit sooner rather than later.

    I noticed that COTS and CRS produced rapid results, and CCDev moved along fairly quickly, too. The bulk of the revenues from these programs comes from the operational phase.

    Revenue is a powerful motivator. For some companies, revenue comes from an operational product; for others, it comes from a development program.

  • wodun

    Blue Origin may be falling into the same trap that American defense contractors fell into over the past half century or so.

    Trap or goal that they have been working toward?

  • David

    I understand your skepticism about the BE-4, but nothing in the linked article feeds it any way. All the article does is state that the BE-4 might have it’s first flight on Vulcan, rather than New Glenn. Nothing that I can see in the article, or even anywhere else, implies that ULA is working towards any kind of fallback. They have gone past the methalox/kerolox/hydrolox checkpoints and are building methalox rocket hardware and pad infrastructure, and there is no other methalox engine available to them.

    Blue Origin is very secretive in comparison to SpaceX, and I think some people are interpreting that lack of public knowledge to indicate that things aren’t happening. But even SpaceX manages to sneak things under the radar, witness the fact that they had a good chunk of a hopper built in Florida before anyone even knew they were going to do so. I think if Blue Origin was really slow-walking the BE-4 to a significant extent, we’d hear ULA screaming about it, because a delay in that engine is going to hurt them bad.

  • David: All you say is true. My instincts however are binging, and when they bing, I must write about it, because though they are not always right they are right far more times than they are wrong.

    Note the comparison I make between Branson and Bezos. Bezos used to never do hype. He’s been doing it more and more, not based on achievements (actual manned New Shepard flights) but mere concepts (his Blue Moon lunar lander). The similarity disturbs me.

    Until Blue Origin starts actual manned flights with New Shepard, the company has nothing real to its name, despite the hype.

  • Jollster

    Does anyone else get an “SLS” vibe from Blue Origin? They seem to be in consideration for contracts, but have produced nothing but an engine on a test stand. I agree with the Z Man; Blue need to produce something…. anything, apart from press releases.

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