ULA stacks Vulcan-Centaur rocket for ground tests prior to first launch

ULA’s new Vulcan-Centaur rocket has finally been stacked in the company’s assembly facility at Cape Canaveral, ready to be rolled out for its first launchpad fueling tests prior to its first launch, tentatively scheduled for the end of March.

The odds of that launch date being met is quite uncertain. Right now neither the rocket’s payloads nor its solid rocket strap-on boosters have been added, and before that will happen the company plans to first roll the rocket out to the launchpad, do fueling and countdown tests. It will then roll it back to the assembly building to stack those components, and then roll it back to the launchpad for launch.

To meet that launch target everything must go perfectly during these preliminary operations, something that is generally unexpected for a rocket’s first launch. ULA however has an advantage, in that it has already done much of this testing using a dummy Vulcan, and it also has decades of experience launching rockets.

Much rides on this first launch. The payloads include Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine, as well as Amazon’s first two test satellites for its Kuiper internet constellation. Also, ULA needs to complete two successful launches in order to get certified to begin its commercial launches for the military.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander passes launch tests

Astrobotic’s first demonstration lunar lander, dubbed Peregrine, has passed its vibration and acoustic tests, demonstrating it can survive launch on ULA’s Vulcan rocket, presently scheduled for the first quarter of ’23.

The lander is now undergoing electromagnetic interference testing, which will be followed by thermal vacuum tests. Once those tests are complete, the company said, it will ship the lander to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to be integrated with the Vulcan Centaur for a launch currently scheduled in the first quarter of 2023. That launch will be the inaugural flight of the Vulcan Centaur.

A great deal will be riding on that first Vulcan launch, both for Astrobotic and ULA.

Astrobotics unveils nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Astrobotics yesterday unveiled its nearly complete Peregrine lunar lander, scheduled for launch later this year on the first launch of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

The lander is still being assembled, said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic. Remaining work includes installation of its solar panels, two fuel tanks and decks holding payloads. The engines are “just about done,” he said, and will soon be installed.

He was optimistic that remaining work will be done quickly. “In just a couple months’ time, this will be heading out to environmental testing,” he said, followed by shipment to the launch site late this year.

This announcement now strongly suggests that Peregrine would not have been ready for Vulcan’s original launch date in late 2021. Since then the delays by Blue Origin in developing Vulcan’s first stage BE-4 engine has pushed the rocket’s first launch back by more than a year, time that apparently Astrobotics needed to finish Peregrine.

ULA orders 116 rocket engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for its Vulcan upper stage

Capitalism in space: In order to meet its contract with Amazon to launch a lot of Kuiper satellites, ULA has now ordered 116 rocket engines from Aerojet Rocketdyne for the Centaur upper stage of its new and as-yet unlaunched Vulcan-Centaur rocket.

Aerojet said this was the company’s largest ever contract for the RL10 engine. The large purchase of rocket engines comes on the heels of Amazon’s announcement April 5 that it selected Arianespace, Blue Origin and ULA to launch up to 3,236 satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband constellation.

CEO Tory Bruno said ULA plans to fly Vulcan’s first mission late in 2022. Winning the Amazon deal would more than double the annual rate of Vulcan launches to as many as 25 per year, and ULA will ramp up production to meet the demand, Bruno said last week at the Space Symposium.

ULA’s engine choice for Vulcan’s upper stage dates back to 2018 when it selected a variant of the RL10, the same engine used to power the upper stages of ULA’s legacy rockets Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Heavy. Over the past 60 years, more than 450 RL10 engines have flown on various ULA heritage vehicles.

Meanwhile, ULA hopes to get its first BE-4 engines from Blue Origin, needed for the Vulcan first stage, this summer. Vulcan-Centaur cannot make its first launch until it gets some flightworthy BE-4 engines, and these are now three years behind schedule.

Amazon announces launch agreements with Blue Origin, Arianespace, and ULA

Capitalism in space: Amazon today announced major multi-launch agreements with Blue Origin, Arianespace, and ULA to launch its 3,000+ Kuiper satellite constellation.

According to the press release, ULA won 38 launches using its new Vulcan-Centaur rocket (not yet flown), Arianespace won 18 launches using its new Ariane-6 rocket (not yet flown), and Blue Origin won 12 launches using its new New Glenn rocket (not yet flown), with an option for 15 more. The ULA deal is in addition to a previous launch contract of nine launches using the Atlas-5 rocket.

In addition, Amazon hopes to launch two prototype satellites later this year using ABL’s smallsat RS1 rocket (not yet flown).

Overall, this Amazon launch announcement might be the largest launch contract deal ever. However, the company’s reliance on unproven rockets means it will also likely face some delays and failures in its early stages. That the press release makes no mention of any schedule for launches illustrates this fact starkly. All four rockets have already seen major delays. with the three biggest (Vulcan-Centaur, New Glenn, Ariane 6) now more than two years behind schedule, and the likelihood of their first launch occurring in 2022 increasingly unlikely.

SpaceX grabbing 90% of the launch contracts to the Moon

Capitalism in space: The announcement yesterday by Firefly that it has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its Blue Ghost lunar lander mission (scheduled for launch in ’23) is significant because it continues a remarkable pattern of dominance by SpaceX of the lunar launch market.

Right now, of the seven scheduled robot missions to the Moon, SpaceX will launch all but one. The full list, in no particular order:

In addition, SpaceX launched Israel’s Beresheet lander in 2019 on a Falcon 9.

Furthermore, SpaceX has won the contract from NASA for the agency’s first manned lunar lander, using Starship. It has also won the contract to launch the initial components of NASA’s Lunar Gateway space station on a Falcon Heavy.

There are other lunar missions in the works (by Russia, China, and others), but these are all the launches awarded as commercial contracts to private rocket companies in recent years. Thus, of these ten lunar missions, SpaceX has launched or is launching nine. That’s a 90% market share!
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Space Force awards launch contracts (two each) to ULA and SpaceX

Capitalism in space: On March 9th the Space Force announced that it has awarded four new launch contracts, two each to ULA and SpaceX, for a total cost of just under $400 million, all to launch in ’23.

Under the task orders issued March 9, ULA and SpaceX will each launch two missions. ULA was awarded $225 million to launch and integrate the USSF-112 and USSF-87 missions on its Vulcan Centaur rockets while SpaceX was awarded $160 million to launch and integrate USSF-36 and launch NROL-69 on its Falcon 9 rockets.

Based on these numbers it appears ULA is charging about $113 million per launch for its new Vulcan Centaur rocket, while SpaceX is charging about $80 million using its Falcon 9.

For ULA, that is less that what it would charge using its Atlas 5 rocket, but not by much. For SpaceX this price is high, probably because the military might be demanding the company use new boosters for its launches.

These high prices for both are to me a sign of how little our federal government cares about saving any money for the taxpayer. While the competition brought on by SpaceX’s arrival is saving the military money, the way these contract awards are structured, with both ULA and SpaceX guaranteed to win them, neither company has an incentive to reduce its prices. Instead, they can overcharge and the military can do nothing about it.

In a more sane world the military would use the competition in the launch market to get an ever better deal. Instead, our federal government sees its budget as a blank check, and they are using it.