ULA replaces Sierra’s mini-shuttle with dummy payload to launch Vulcan in September

Because of continuing delays in preparing Sierra Space’s Tenacity Dream Chaser mini-shuttle for launch, ULA has been forced to remove it from the second launch of Vulcan in order to proceed with the launch in September as planned.

ULA needs to launch Vulcan for the second time and as soon as possible in order to get approval from the Pentagon to do military launches. The delays in getting Tenacity ready for launch has already impacted that schedule, as ULA had originally hoped to launch Vulcan on its second flight — with Tenacity as the payload — several months ago. Further delays beyond September would seriously damage not only ULA’s bottom line, but the military’s own needs. It is all for these reasons that ULA has now set up a new review team to force this schedule forward, likely under pressure from the Pentagon.

Sierra Space meanwhile says that Tenacity is still on track to be ready to launch before the end of the year, but it is unclear what rocket will carry it. ULA will likely offer another Vulcan rocket for the purpose, but to do so it will probably have to delay some other payload, and it is certain it will not do that to any upcoming military launches. Based on the announced launch schedule, it does not look like this launch can occur on a ULA rocket in 2024. ULA says it hopes to launch at least 20 times in 2025, so one of those launches will likely carry Tenacity.

Space Force names SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin as its launch providers for the next five years

As part of the military’s program for issuing launch contracts, the Space Force yesterday announced that it has chosen SpaceX, ULA, and Blue Origin as its launch providers, allowing them to bid on $5.6 billion worth of planned launched over the next five years.

The NSSL Phase 3 program was structured into two “lanes.” Lane 1 is for less demanding launches to low Earth orbit, while Lane 2 is reserved for heavy lift rockets capable of delivering payloads to nine reference orbits, including some of the most demanding national security missions.

The selection of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and ULA for Lane 1 contracts confirms that no other launch providers met the criteria. Seven bids were submitted, according to the DoD announcement.

The Space Force apparently rejected the other four unnamed companies because they “are still maturing their launch capabilities.” It will allow them to re-submit applications next year, and could approve others for bidding at that time, which is a major change from past policy. Previously the military would name approved companies, but not reconsider others for years, a policy that limited its options and reduced competition. Now it appears it will be doing so frequently, possibly every year, in order to regularly increase the number of companies that can bid on military contracts.

This change is excellent news for the American launch industry, as it means the Pentagon has finally ended its long standing launch policy that played favorites.

ULA’s Atlas-5 launches Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first manned mission

After many delays and scrubs involving both the rocket and the capsule, ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket today successfully launched Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first manned mission, carrying NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams.

I have embedded the live stream below, cued to just before liftoff. The spacecraft will dock with ISS tomorrow, where Wilmore and Williams will spend a week checking out the capsule’s operations before undocking and returning to Earth.

As this was only the third launch this year for ULA, the leader board for the 2024 launch race doesn’t change:

59 SpaceX
26 China
8 Russia
7 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads the world combined in successful launches, 69 to 40, while SpaceX by itself leads the entire world, including other American companies, 59 to 50.

» Read more

NASA confirms June 5th as new launch date for Starliner

NASA yesterday evening confirmed that the agency, ULA, and Boeing are now targeting June 5, 2024 at 10:52 am (Eastern) for the launch of the first manned launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule carrying two astronauts to ISS for a two week checkout mission.

Technicians and engineers with ULA (United Launch Alliance) worked overnight and on Sunday to assess the ground support equipment at the launch pad that encountered issues during the countdown and scrubbed the June 1 launch attempt. The ULA team identified an issue with a single ground power supply within one of the three redundant chassis that provides power to a subset of computer cards controlling various system functions, including the card responsible for the stable replenishment topping valves for the Centaur upper stage. All three of these chassis are required to enter the terminal phase of the launch countdown to ensure crew safety.

On Sunday, the chassis containing the faulty ground power unit was removed, visually inspected, and replaced with a spare chassis. No signs of physical damage were observed. A full failure analysis of the power unit will be performed to better understand root cause. Meanwhile, ULA has completed functional checkouts of the new chassis and the cards, and all hardware is performing normally.

These kinds of technical issues happen too often on ULA launches. Company engineers always fix them, but it never appears they fix them permanently. Too often on launches they pop up again, causing more scrubs.

The goal should be to fix them so they never pop up again, and your launches can begin to launch reliably, on time. And we know it can be done, because SpaceX has done it.

Boeing Starliner launch scrubbed at T-3:50

UPDATE: The launch is now scheduled for June 5, 2024 at 10:52 am (Eastern).

For reasons that appeared related to the ground system’s of ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket, the first manned launch of Boeing’s Starliner’s capsule was scrubbed today at T-3:50.

It appears they want to try again tomorrow at 12:03 pm (Eastern), assuming ULA can figure out what happened.

The repeated scrubs and delays that have so far prevented this launch are beginning to remind my of my childhood watching the early NASA launch attempts during the Mercury program. Then, they hadn’t done this before, and were being very careful about everything.

Now, it seems that NASA, ULA, and Boeing are acting the same way, and that is probably because they are very nervous about Starliner and don’t want anything to go wrong.

I had intended to embed the live stream, but slept late (it IS the weekend, y’know). Sorry.

Watching the first manned launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule

NASA has now announced the broadcast schedule for tomorrow’s 12:35 pm (Eastern) launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first manned mission to ISS.

NASA will provide live coverage of prelaunch and launch activities for the agency’s Boeing Crew Flight Test, which will carry NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to and from the International Space Station.

Launch of the ULA (United Launch Alliance) Atlas V rocket and Boeing Starliner spacecraft is targeted for 12:25 p.m. EDT Saturday, June 1, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Starliner will dock to the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony module at approximately 1:50 p.m., Sunday, June 2.

The live stream will begin on NASA TV at 8:15 am (Eastern). I will embed that live stream here tomorrow. As this start time is more than four hours before launch, expect there to be endless NASA propaganda for most of that time. My advice is to tune in at around noon.

Let us all pray that all goes well on this flight. Boeing’s recent track record has generally be horrible. We can only hope its engineers have gotten all of the kinks out of this capsule.

NASA/Boeing/ULA confirm new June 1st launch date for Starliner

In a press briefing this morning officials from NASA, Boeing, and ULA confirmed the new June 1, 12:25 pm (Eastern) launch date for the first manned flight of Boeing’s Starliner manned capsule.

The officials provided a more detailed explanation of the helium leak in a valve that effects the capsule’s service module attitude thruster system, noting that it is not a design flaw but some specific issue in this particular valve. Because of this, they are confident the system can function safely even with the leak, which is relatively small.

However, the officials also noted that during their reviews in the past two weeks they discovered a new software issue in the spacecraft’s de-orbit engines that — under very unusual and unlikely circumstances — could actually cause those engines to fail to operate. They have figured out a work-around, whereby they fire the engines at a lower thrust in two stages rather than once.

Should the launch on June 1st be scrubbed for weather, they have back up dates on the next few days, though by June 4th ULA might have to swap out batteries on its Atlas-5 rocket that will require a longer stand down of several additional days.

Boeing/NASA now targeting a June 1, 2024 launch of Starliner

In a brief update posted today by NASA, the agency announced that Boeing, NASA, and ULA have a new 12:25 pm (Eastern) June 1, 2024 launch date for the first manned flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

The announcement was incredibly obscure about what the issues are that have caused this additional week delay:

Work continues to assess Starliner performance and redundancy following the discovery of a small helium leak in the spacecraft’s service module. As part of this work, and unrelated to the current leak which remains stable, teams are in the process of completing a follow-on propulsion system assessment to understand potential helium system impacts on some Starliner return scenarios. NASA also will conduct a Delta-Agency Flight Test Readiness Review to discuss the work that was performed since the last CFT launch attempt on May 6, and to evaluate issue closure and flight rationale ahead of the next attempt, as part of NASA’s process for assessing readiness. The date of the upcoming Flight Test Readiness Review is under consideration and will be announced once selected.

It appears that engineers are worried the leak — which is linked to one of the attitude thrusters in the capsule’s service module — might impact the ability of Starliner to return to Earth safely. It also appears there is concern about the spacecraft sitting on the launchpad for more than a month, and an evaluation is on-going on whether this might be an issue as well.

I am guessing however. A more detailed explanation might be forth-coming after press update scheduled for 11 am (Eastern) tomorrow.

Starliner manned launch delayed again; no new launch announced

In a very terse statement that apparently was only sent out by email to some sources, NASA and Boeing announced last night that the May 25, 2024 launch of the first manned Starliner mission on ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket had been postponed, with no new launch date set.

NASA, Boeing, and ULA are foregoing the Saturday, May 25 launch attempt for NASA’s Boeing Crew Flight Test. The team has been in meetings for two consecutive days, assessing flight rationale, system performance, and redundancy. There is still forward work in these areas, and the next possible launch opportunity is still being discussed.

NASA will share more details once we have a clearer path forward,

The first launch scrub prior to the first launch date of May 6th was due to a valve issue on the Atlas-5 rocket. ULA quickly replaced that valve and the launch was rescheduled for May 17th. Then Boeing engineers detected a helium leak related to one of the attitude thrusters in the capsule’s service module. The launch was first delayed until May 21st, then delayed again until May 25th. Now it is delayed indefinitely.

Whether that helium leak remains the cause of this new delay remains unknown. That no new launch date has been proposed suggests the need to bring the rocket and capsule back to the assembly building to destack it in order to fix the problem. That NASA, Boeing, and ULA are being so coy about revealing any details suggests however that some additional issue might have been uncovered.

Regardless, this new extended delay is very bad publicity for Boeing. While the comparison is somewhat unfair, it continues to make Starliner look like an American version of a Yugo, not the kind of vehicle one would nonchalantly climb into for a flight into space.

Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle arrives at the Cape

Capitalism in space: Sierra Space’s Tenacity Dream Chaser mini-shuttle has finally arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its final testing and assembly onto ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

Upon arrival at Kennedy, teams moved Dream Chaser Tenacity to the high bay inside the Space Systems Processing Facility, where it will undergo final testing and prelaunch processing ahead of its launch scheduled for later this year.

…The remaining pre-flight activities at Kennedy include acoustic and electromagnetic interference and compatibility testing, completion of work on the spaceplane’s thermal protection system, and final payload integration.

If all goes right, Tenacity’s first mission will last 45 days, delivery about 7,800 pounds of cargo to ISS, and prove out the reusable mini-shuttle for up to seven more flights to ISS.

Starliner launch delayed again, to May 25, 2024

Boeing, ULA, and NASA have decided to delay the first manned flight of Boeing’s Starliner capsule another four days to 3:09 pm (Eastern) on May 25, 2024.

The additional time allows teams to further assess a small helium leak in the Boeing Starliner spacecraft’s service module traced to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster. Pressure testing performed on May 15 on the spacecraft’s helium system showed the leak in the flange is stable and would not pose a risk at that level during the flight. The testing also indicated the rest of the thruster system is sealed effectively across the entire service module. Boeing teams are working to develop operational procedures to ensure the system retains sufficient performance capability and appropriate redundancy during the flight.

It appears they simply want to give themselves extra time to review their data thoroughly, with no rush, before lighting the rocket.

Atlas-5 launch of Starliner slips to May 21, 2024

While ULA has successfully replaced the valve in the upper stage of the Atlas-5 rocket, the first manned launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has slipped another four days, to May 21, 2024, because a newly discovered helium leak in the capsule’s service module.

Starliner teams are working to resolve a small helium leak detected in the spacecraft’s service module traced to a flange on a single reaction control system thruster. Helium is used in spacecraft thruster systems to allow the thrusters to fire and is not combustible or toxic.

NASA and Boeing are developing spacecraft testing and operational solutions to address the issue. As a part of the testing, Boeing will bring the propulsion system up to flight pressurization just as it does prior to launch, and then allow the helium system to vent naturally to validate existing data and strengthen flight rationale.

The prevous launch scrub was entirely due to the ULA’s rocket, not anything related to Boeing. This delay however is a Boeing issue, and it only reinforces the general uneasiness everyone feels about Boeing’s quality control work.

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.

ULA signs contract to build a second transport ship for its Vulcan rocket

ULA yesterday announced it has issued contracts for the construction of a second transport ship for bringing its Vulcan rocket from the factory in Alabama to the launch sites in Florida and California.

ULA awarded Bollinger Shipyards a contract to build a second roll-on/roll-off vessel classed for both ocean-going and river service. Construction has just begun on the 356-ft-long ship at Bollinger’s shipyard located in Amelia, Louisiana with delivery to ULA expected in January 2026.

…“ULA currently has its first ship called RocketShip that has been in service for decades and with this second ship called SpaceShip our maritime fleet will enable enterprise transportation capacity of four Vulcan launch vehicles across two voyages to either the East or West Coast,” said Ellerhorst.

ULA also hired a company in Rhode Island to design and supervise the construction. The company needs two ships because it has a lot of launches scheduled over the next few years, including 38 for Amazon to help launch its Kuiper internet satellite constellation as well as a number the U.S. military.

Launch of first manned flight of Starliner rescheduled for May 17, 2024

Because ULA engineers have decided they need to replace the valve that forced a launch scrub on May 8th, the first manned launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule to ISS has now been rescheduled to May 17, 2024.

The oscillating behavior of the valve during prelaunch operations, ultimately resulted in mission teams calling a launch scrub on May 6. After the ground crews and astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams safely exited from Space Launch Complex-41, the ULA team successfully commanded the valve closed and the oscillations were temporarily dampened. The oscillations then re-occurred twice during fuel removal operations. After evaluating the valve history, data signatures from the launch attempt, and assessing the risks relative to continued use, the ULA team determined the valve exceeded its qualification and mission managers agreed to remove and replace the valve.

Replacing the valve is a somewhat routine procedure, but it will take a few days, causing the two-week delay.

Starliner launch scrubbed due to valve issue

Yesterday’s Starliner launch was scrubbed before launch because ULA had detected an issue with a valve on the Atlas-5’s Centaur upper stage, causing that valve to flutter because it had not closed in the proper position.

At the press conference that followed, ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno explained that during an unmanned launch, engineers would have simply cycled the valve, which almost always works to get it to seat properly. ULA launch rules however forbids it from doing so on a manned launch, because that would be the equivalent of fueling the tank with people on board the rocket. The Atlas-5 was initially not built for manned flights, and though it has been upgraded to man-rate it, those upgrades did not permit ULA this capability, unlike SpaceX’s Falcon 9, which get fueled entirely after the crew boards Dragon.

They are reviewing the data to see if the valve will need to be replaced. If not, the launch could happen quickly. If it does, the launch will be delayed slightly longer, but not significantly. Right now ULA, NASA, and Boeing are targeting a May 10th launch.

It is worth listening to Tory Bruno’s explanation of the situation because of its clarity. I have embedded his comments below, time-stamped to when he began speaking.
» Read more

NASA announces launch coverage for the first Starliner manned capsule launch on May 6, 2024

NASA today released the details for its public media coverage of the first manned launch at 10:34 pm (Eastern) on May 6, 2024 of Boeing’s Starliner capsule.

NASA will provide live coverage of prelaunch and launch activities for the agency’s Boeing Crew Flight Test, which will carry NASA astronauts Butch Wilmore and Suni Williams to and from the International Space Station.

Launch of the ULA (United Launch Alliance) Atlas V rocket and Boeing Starliner spacecraft is targeted for 10:34 p.m. EDT Monday, May 6, from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The flight test will carry Wilmore and Williams to the space station for about a week to test the Starliner spacecraft and its subsystems before NASA certifies the transportation system for rotational missions to the orbiting laboratory for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

Starliner will dock to the forward-facing port of the station’s Harmony module at 12:48 a.m., Wednesday, May 8.

Though that coverage includes several prelaunch and post launch press conferences, the key coverage of the launch itself will begin at 6:30 pm (Eastern) on May 6th, about four hours before the launch itself. It will also include the capsule’s docking with ISS on May 8th.

I will embed NASA’s Youtube live stream here on Behind the Black on both dates, though as always I sugggest waiting until just before launch and docking to tune in. The four hours of streaming prior to launch is mostly going to be NASA propaganda, touting the agency and often misconstruing the facts to overstate its importance. This launch will be just like SpaceX’s Dragon launches, in that almost everything will be run by the two private companies involved, Boeing and ULA, and not NASA. NASA’s real involvement will only begin at the docking to ISS.

This first manned flight of Starliner is long past due. It was supposed to occur about four years ago, but numerous technological and management problems at Boeing forced many delays. Getting that capsule operational will finally give NASA two American companies capable of putting humans in space. It will also offer some competition to SpaceX, though this competition will be weak until Boeing can demonstrate Starliner’s reliability.

Blue Origin completes delivery of the two BE-4 engines for ULA’s second Vulcan launch

Blue Origin this week completed delivery of the two BE-4 engines needed for the second launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for sometime this fall.

That launch was originally targeting an April launch, but according to official announcements has been delayed until the fall because final ground testing of its payload, Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle, is not complete. It appears that Blue Origin also contributed to that delay, as it is now obvious that its engines were not available as planned in time for that April launch.

This delay also raises questions about Blue Origin’s ability to ramp up BE-4 engine production to meet the needs of ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Both have large launch contracts with Amazon to launch its Kuiper constellation, while ULA also has almost as many contracts with the U.S. military. To meet those contracts, Blue Origin will have to produce several hundred BE-4 engines yearly in the very near future. Right now it appears it can only produce about one per year.

ULA completes last Delta-4 Heavy launch

Delta-4 Heavy on its last launch
Delta-4 Heavy on its last launch

ULA today successfully completed the last Delta-4 launch, the Delta-4 Heavy version — the most powerful — lifting off from Cape Canaveral and placing a National Reconnaissance Office surveillance satellite into orbit.

From this point on ULA will rely on its new Vulcan-Centaur and Atlas-5 rockets, though production of the Atlas-5 has ceased. When the remaining Atlas-5s are flown, the Vulcan-Centaur in its many iterations will become the company’s mainstay rocket. All this might change depending on who buys ULA. If Blue Origin buys the company, the mix will be more complex, as that company is developing its own New Glenn rocket.

This was ULA’s second launch in 2024, so there is no change to the leader board in the 2024 launch race:

36 SpaceX
14 China
5 Russia
4 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads the rest of the world combined 42 to 25, while SpaceX by itself leads the rest of the world, including other American companies, 36 to 31.

ULA begins stacking Atlas-5 rocket for launching the first manned mission of Starliner

ULA has begun to assemble the Atlas-5 rocket that will hopefully launch Boeing’s Starliner capsule on its first manned mission to ISS, presently targeting a late April lift-off.

The rocket’s main stage was transferred from the nearby Advanced Spaceflight Operations Center to the integration facility Wednesday, Feb. 21, where it will await integration with the rocket’s upper Centaur stage and Starliner. The spacecraft will carry NASA astronauts Suni Williams and Butch Wilmore to the orbiting laboratory for a short stay of about one to two weeks before returning to a landing site in the southwest United States.

The late April date appears to be a slight delay from previous announcements.

Status of ULA sale offer, as seen by bankers

Link here. The article outlines the perspective of the banking community to the sale, relative to the three potential known purchasers, Blue Origin, Cerberus, and Textron.

[M]ost contended that a deal should have been finalized years ago, as SpaceX now dominates the global rocket launch market and has grabbed share from ULA’s best customer, the U.S. military. The sticky part of a sale, those bankers said, is the need for new ownership that can both streamline ULA and invest in further innovation.

The price is another sticking point: Bankers suggested ULA’s owners initially sought more than $4 billion for the company, but the consensus of a reasonable winning bid was in the range of $2 billion to $2.5 billion. As one banker emphasized to me, there’s more competition among heavy launch vehicles like Vulcan today than there was a decade ago, and the rocket’s only just getting going now.

First, it appears that Textron has already dropped out. Second, the reason the sale was delayed was solely the fault of Blue Origin, as delays in delivering its BE-4 rocket engine to ULA caused the first launch of the Vulcan rocket to be delayed years. The sale couldn’t happen until that rocket was proven flightworthy.

The analysis between Blue Origin and Cerberus makes it hard picking either as the likely winner. It suggests that while Blue Origin, as a rocket company, might be able to more quickly take advanage of the ULA’s assets, Cerberus would be a better managerial fit, more able to trim the fat and make ULA more competitive. For sure, Blue Origin shows no ability to trim fat or work fast.

The bankers also indicated a dark horse could still appear.

Hat tip to BtB’s stringer Jay.

Vibration testing of Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle completed

NASA engineers have now completed vibration testing of Sierra Space’s Tenacity mini-shuttle, set to launch on a Vulcan rocket later this year.

Reading between the blather in the NASA press release at the link, it appears that testing was successful, proving that the Dream Chaser spacecraft can survive the vibrations of launch. This conclusion by me however remains unconfirmed. Engineers are now preparing the mini-shuttle for environmental testing.

Next up, Dream Chaser will move to a huge, in-ground vacuum chamber that will continue to simulate the space environment Dream Chaser will encounter on its mission. The spaceplane will be put through its paces, experiencing low ambient pressures, low-background temperatures, and dynamic solar heating.

Previously the launch date had been targeting April 2024, according to ULA officials. It now appears, from the vagueness of recent reports, as well as the actual testing now in progress, that the launch date has slipped. They appear to be targeting the first half of 2024, but are as yet unwilling to commit to a date.

ULA’s Vulcan rocket successfully places payload in orbit on first launch

Vulcan at liftoff.
Vulcan at liftoff.

After four years of delay, mostly caused by delays at Blue Origin in delivering the two BE-4 engines used in the first stage, ULA’s Vulcan rocket finally completed its first launch early on January 8, 2024, lifting off from Cape Canaveral and successfully placing Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander into orbit.

As of posting the upper stage had just deployed Peregrine, which will leave Earth orbit in about four days using its own engines. The upper stage has one more burn to send it into solar orbit, carrying the ashes of numerous people for the company Celestis.

The 2024 launch race:

3 SpaceX
1 India
1 China
1 ULA

For ULA, this launch is a very big deal. It is the first of two required in order for the Space Force to certify the rocket for future military launches. It also positions the company to begin the many launches that Amazon has awarded it to place into orbit a large percentage of that company’s Kuiper internet satellite constellation, assuming of course Blue Origin can deliver on schedule the many BE-4 engines that ULA will require.

This launch will also likely lead to the sale of ULA. » Read more

NASA and one private company respond to Navaho nation’s demand to cancel lunar mission

Both NASA and one of the private companies involved in ULA’s first Vulcan rocket launch on January 8, 2023 that will carry the Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon have now responded to the Navaho nation, which has stated its religion gives it the unlimited right to decide what can go there.

Navaho President Buu Nygren had claimed earlier this week that the “Moon is sacred to numerous Indigenous cultures” and the payloads of human ashes being sent to the Moon was “tantamount to desecration.” He demanded the mission be delayed or canceled.
» Read more

Navaho Indians attempt to claim ownership of the Moon, delay Vulcan launch

The president of the Navaho Nation has asked NASA to delay the first launch of ULA’s Vulcan rocket because it carries ashes from a number of people (none who were members of its tribe) that Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will place on the Moon.

The remains are a payload purchased by the company Celestis, which offers this burial option to anyone who wishes it. On this flight that payload includes a wide range of ashes, including many actors and creators from the original Star Trek series.

Navaho President Buu Nygren claims that the “Moon is sacred to numerous Indigenous cultures and that depositing human remains on it is ‘tantamount to desecration.'”

Nygren highlighted this commitment in his letter, as well as a 2021 memo signed by the Biden administration that pledged to consult the tribe on matters that impact them. “This memorandum reinforced the commitment to Executive Order 13175 of November 6, 2000,” President Nygren wrote. “Additionally, the Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Interagency Coordination and Collaboration for the Protection of Indigenous Sacred Sites, which you and several other members of the Administration signed in November 2021, further underscores the requirement for such consultation.”

In other words, though the Navaho have no plans to ever go there, have done nothing to try to explore it, and have no remains of any tribal members on the flight, he wants to claim the Moon as controlled entirely and forever by the Indian tribes of North America because of a law designed solely to protect specific archeological sites on Earth, where Indian remains are discovered.
» Read more

ULA’s Vulcan rocket fully stacked for the first time

Peregrine landing site
The landing site for Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander

In preparation for its targeted January 8, 2024 launch, ULA’s Vulcan rocket has now been fully stacked for first time in its assembly building at Cape Canaveral.

ULA’s new rocket has rolled between its vertical hangar and the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station several times for countdown rehearsals and fueling tests. But ULA only needed the Vulcan rocket’s first stage and upper stage to complete those tests. The addition of the payload shroud Wednesday marked the first time ULA has fully stacked a Vulcan rocket, standing some 202 feet (61.6 meters) tall, still surrounded by scaffolding and work platforms inside its assembly building.

It will next be rolled to the launchpad for some final checks prior to launch on January 8, 2023. Unlike most first launches, it carries a real payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, which hopes to softly place several NASA and commercial payloads near the Gruithuisen Domes in the northwest quadrant of the Moon’s visible hemisphere, as shown on the map above.

Amazon files to have shareholder lawsuit dismissed

On December 11, 2023 Amazon requested dismissal of a shareholder lawsuit against it for acting in bad faith by excluding SpaceX in its initial launch contracts with ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin to put its Kuiper constellation of satellites into orbit.

The lawsuit claimed that the board performed little diligence on the proposed contracts to launch the 3,236-satellite constellation with the Ariane 6, New Glenn and Vulcan Centaur rockets. The combined contracts were, it stated, the second largest capital expenditure in Amazon’s history at the time, trailing only its $13.7 billion acquisition of grocer Whole Foods.

The lawsuit stated that the board and its audit committee spent “barely an hour” reviewing those contracts, including those that would go to Blue Origin and ULA. Blue Origin is owned by Amazon founder and former chief executive Jeff Bezos, while ULA has a contract with Blue Origin to use BE-4 engines on its Vulcan rocket. The suit estimated that nearly 45% of the value of the contracts goes to Blue Origin either directly or through the BE-4 engine contract with ULA.

Amazon’s call for dismissal disputes these claims, stating that the board spent far more time on the issue, and then documents this. Interestingly, it makes no mention of the recent additional launch contract Amazon signed with SpaceX on December 3, 2023, but it is obvious that this filing was timed to occur afterward in order to strengthen Amazon’s case.

Amazon’s response (available at the link above) is heavily redacted, so some of the company’s claims are difficult to assess. For example, if the board did consider the issue of launch contractors properly, the subject of using SpaceX should have come up and been discussed at length. The redactions make it impossible to determine if this was so. If anything, what can be read suggests SpaceX was dismissed as an option far too quickly.

ULA likely to delay first Vulcan launch to January launch window

According to a tweet yesterday by ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the final dress rehearsal countdown of its new Vulcan rocket had some “routine” issues that will require a redo and thus prevent the planned launch on December 24, 2023.

WDR [wet dress rehearsal] update: Vehicle performed well. Ground system had a couple of (routine) issues, (being corrected). Ran the timeline long so we didn’t quite finish. I’d like a FULL WDR before our first flight, so XMAS eve is likely out. Next Peregrine window is 8 Jan.

Peregrine is Astrobotic’s lunar lander, which must launch within certain time frames to get to the Moon as planned.

As many news sites are noting (almost certainly because they read my launch race reports), ULA will likely complete 2023 with only three launches, its lowest total since it was formed in 2007 from a merger of the launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Prior to 2017 the company had averaged about one launch per month. In 2017 however SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket finally reached full operations, hitting 18 launches and steadily since then increasing that total. Its success (and lower prices) shifted the business from ULA, causing its annual launch totals to drop significantly, as shown in my 2022 global report.

Once Vulcan begins launching finally ULA should recover, especially because of its large contract with Amazon to launch the Kuiper constellation totalling almost fifty launches. A large percentage of those launches must be completed before 2026 for Amazon to meet the requirements of its FCC license.

Amazon signs launch contract with SpaceX

Amazon on December 1, 2023 announced it has signed a three-launch contract with SpaceX to place its Kuiper satellites into orbit, supplementing the launch contracts it presently has with ULA, Arianespace, and Blue Origin. From the Amazon press release:

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 is a reusable, two-stage launch vehicle designed for the reliable and safe transport of people and payloads into Earth orbit and beyond, and it has completed more than 270 successful launches to date. Project Kuiper has contracted three Falcon 9 launches, and these missions are targeted to lift off beginning in mid-2025.

In 2022 Amazon had signed contracts with the other three launch companies, with ULA getting 38 Vulcan launches (in addition to 9 already signed for its Atlas-5), Arianespace getting 18 Ariane-6 launches, and Blue Origin getting 12 New Glenn launches.

The problem however is that, except for the Atlas-5, none of these rockets has yet completed its first flight. Since Amazon’s FCC license requires it to get half of its constellation of 3,200+ satellites into orbit by 2026 or face penalties, the uncertainty of these rockets has probably forced Amazon management to consider SpaceX, despite likely hostility to such a deal from Jeff Bezos (owner of Blue Origin and founder of Amazon).

Amazon management also probably decided to sign this deal because of a lawsuit filed in September 2023 by company stockholders, accusing the management of neglience because it never even considered SpaceX in earlier contract negotiations while giving favoritism to Bezos’s company Blue Origin. At that time Amazon had already paid these launch companies about $1.7 billion, with Blue Origin getting $585 million, though not one rocket has yet launched, with Blue Origin showing no evidence that a launch coming anytime soon.

The impression of a conflict of interest by Amazon’s board of directors appeared very obvious. This new SpaceX contract weakens that accusation.

More important the deal will help Amazon actually get its satellites into orbit. It appears that reality is finally biting at Amazon, and its management has realized that the three companies they have been relying on might not be up to the job (especially Blue Origin).

Amazon’s first two Kuiper satellites in orbit worked exactly as planned

Amazon announced today that its first two Kuiper satellites, launched into orbit by ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket on October 6, 2023, have worked exactly as planned, thus allowing the company to begin building operational satellites.

With the prototypes’ testing in space now complete, Badyal said Amazon plans to begin building the first production Kuiper satellites in December and launch the first satellites for its network in the “latter part of the first half” of 2024. Badyal emphasized that Amazon wasn’t sure what performance to expect from the prototype satellites, since “you don’t know how well it’s going to work in space.”

“They’re working brilliantly,” Badyal said.

The need of Amazon to start launching lots of satellites next year — in order to meet its FCC license requirements to put half of its 3,000+ constellation in orbit by 2026 — puts great pressure on ULA, Blue Origin, and Arianespace to get their new but as yet unlaunchd rockets operating. All three have big launch contracts with Amazon, but none presently appear to have the capability to meet the demands of those contracts.

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