Tag Archives: Vulcan

Blue Origin delivers its first BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this week delivered its first BE-4 rocket engine to ULA, for use in ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This engine is still a test article and is not yet flight-worthy.

“The engine delivered is the first pathfinder engine to be mated with the Vulcan Centaur and will support ULA’s testing,” a Blue Origin spokesperson told SpaceNews. “We are planning on delivering the second engine in July.” A pathfinder is a development engine. Blue Origin has not said when a flight-qualified engine will be delivered.

…ULA set a 2021 target to fly its first Vulcan Centaur mission and needs two production-quality engines to build the launch vehicle for that mission. Flying Vulcan Centaur in 2021 is an imperative for ULA as it tries to win one of two contracts that the U.S. Space Force will award this summer to launch dozens of national security satellites between 2022 and 2027.

According to sources, frustration has been mounting at ULA as the company’s future is tied to the success of Vulcan Centaur and there is no room for error when it comes to the main engine.

I empathize with ULA’s frustration. The pace of development at Blue Origin has seemed incredibly slow in the past two years. They had begun static fire tests in 2018, and then — beginning with ULA’s decision to buy the BE-4 for Vulcan in May 2018 — for more than a year there was no news. It wasn’t until August 2019 that they announced completion of the first full power test. Even then, it took another whole year before they got to this point now, where they were willing to deliver a first test engine to ULA.

Building a new rocket engine is not simple, so these delays could be entirely reasonable. At the same time, the company’s overall pace in accomplishing anything has been glacial. For example, in the past three years it has repeatedly not delivered on its promises to start flying humans on its New Shepard suborbital capsule. Four months ago, in their most recent promise, they said they would need three more unmanned test flights of New Shepard before they’d put humans on it, and that all those flights (including the manned one) would occur this year. Yet nothing has happened since.

While I truly want Blue Origin to succeed, one must cast a cold eye on what is really happening. If they wish to really compete with SpaceX they have got to pick up their pace.

ULA on schedule for maiden flight of Vulcan in early 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA, the development program for its new Vulcan rocket remains on schedule, and will make its maiden flight in early 2021 as initially planned.

The launch will send Astrobotic’s privately built Peregrine lander to the Moon, carrying NASA science instruments.

The article provides a good overview not only of the status of construction, but also the political history that forced the development of Vulcan, that being the insistence by Congress that ULA stop using Russian engines in its rockets.

Blue Origin to deliver first BE-4 engines to ULA this summer

Capitalism in space: Development of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine, to be used in both its New Glenn rocket as well as ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, appears to be finally reaching its conclusion with the planned delivery this summer of two operational engines to ULA.

The bulk of the article at the link is mostly a summary of stuff that had already been revealed about the development of the New Glenn rocket. The only new piece of information that I could glean was this engine delivery date. It is significant, however, because no rocket company can ever really design its rocket before it has finished building the rocket’s engines. With the BE-4 now complete, I would expect the development of both New Glenn and Vulcan to proceed with great speed.

First launch of ULA’s Vulcan on schedule for 2021

Capitalism in space: According to ULA’s CEO, Tory Bruno, the company is on track to transition as planned from its Atlas 5 and Delta rockets to its new Vulcan rocket.

Just five Delta IV Heavy launches remain on the manifest, all NRO launches procured under the block buy Phase 1 methodology. Bruno expects the final Delta launch to occur in 2023 or 2024.

The workhorse of the ULA fleet, Atlas V, is expected to retire on a similar timeframe. Bruno says the launcher could be “done as early as 2022, or as late as 2024.” Atlas V will have to continue operations until its replacement, Vulcan, can be human-rated to launch the Boeing Starliner spacecraft.

…The first flight of Vulcan Centaur is on track for early 2021, with the first flight vehicle under construction, and more vehicles in flow, in ULA’s factory in Decatur, Alabama. Vulcan’s debut launch will carry the Astrobotic Peregrine lander to the moon for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. A second launch is currently planned for later that year, which will satisfy the Air Force certification requirement for Vulcan to launch military missions.

Bruno’s report is also good news for Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, since both will use Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine in their first stage. If ULA is on schedule, than Blue Origin also likely to be on schedule, meaning that come 2021 or so the U.S. will have at least three companies (including SpaceX) capable of putting large payloads into orbit. Moreover, Northrop Grumman is developing its OmegA rocket, which will compete for the same business.

The article also talks about the military’s launch procurement program, which supposedly will pick two of these launch companies to provide all military launches through the 2020s. That program however is certain to fail, as it will blacklist all other viable companies from bidding on military launches. I expect those companies will successfully sue and force the Space Force to accept bids from more than two companies.

And that is as it should be. Why the military wishes to limit bidding makes no sense, and is probably illegal anyway. As long as a company has a qualified rocket, its bids should be welcome.

Blue Origin opens rocket engine factory

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin yesterday cut the ribbon on its main rocket engine factory in Huntsville, Alabama, while also announcing that production of their BE-4 engine for both ULA’s new Vulcan rocket and their own New Glenn rocket will begin in a few months.

In the meantime, made-in-Kent engines are being tested at Blue Origin’s West Texas site. Smith said two flight readiness engines will be delivered in May to United Launch Alliance. They’ll be used for integrated tests of ULA’s Vulcan first-stage booster, which is taking shape not far from Huntsville in Decatur, Ala.

This is excellent news. For the past year and a half the company has released little information about their progress with the BE-4 engine, suggesting that they might be experiencing issues. Yesterday’s news bursts that pessimistic balloon, indicating that both the Vulcan and New Glenn rockets will be flying, maybe as soon as next year.

ULA backing off from reuseablity and Vulcan upgrades?

Capitalism in space: According to this Space News story today, it appears that ULA is shifting away from building a major upgrade to the upper stage of its Vulcan rocket, even as it also appears to be backing off from pushing plans to recover and reuse its first stage engines.

ULA spokeswoman Jessica Rye told SpaceNews by email that the company still plans to introduce an “advanced upper stage,” but only after Vulcan flies. Rye also declined to provide a specific timeline.

Similarly, ULA officials also refused to give a timeline for when they will begin recovering Vulcan’s first stage engines and reusing them.

Right now the company expects to launch the first iteration of Vulcan, using as Atlas 5 Centaur upper stage, sometime in 2021. It also appears that those first launches will not recover the first stage Blue Origin BE-4 engines.

In the long run, I do not see how ULA can compete. They certainly appear hesitant about introducing any new innovations or upgrades to Vulcan, which will result in an expendable rocket that costs far too much.

In fact, the arrival of this apparent timidity seems to have occurred almost to the day the company accepted a development contract for Vulcan from the Air Force. Thus, it increasingly appears that it is our federal government that is squelching the company’s creativity.

Why am I not surprised?

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.

Bezos provides 1st BE-4 engine update in more than a year

Yesterday Jeff Bezos posted the first status update since last spring on the development of the BE-4 rocket engine by Blue Origin, posting one image and stating that the engine testing continues.

According to his post, the engine had just completed a full power test, and has been accumulating test time.

This update is very reassuring, especially following such a long period of silence, beginning in April 2018. Before that Blue Origin had provided somewhat regularly updates.

In reviewing my past posts, it appears that the updates more or less ceased once ULA announced its decision to use the BE-4 in its Vulcan rocket. I now suspect the earlier updates were aimed more at ULA than the public, and once the decision was made Blue Origin returned to its more traditional tight-lipped approach.

Update on development status of ULA’s Vulcan rocket

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.

ULA to fly Vulcan components on Atlas 5 flights

Capitalism in space: In order to speed the development of its next generation commercial rocket, the Vulcan Centaur, ULA will fly Vulcan components as they are developed on its Atlas 5 rocket.

The first Vulcan technology to fly on Atlas 5 will be new payload fairings from Swiss supplier Ruag built using an “out-of-autoclave” production process that enables fairing halves to be produced as one piece, a process Ruag says lowers production time and costs. “The out-of-autoclave fairings, which are manufactured by Ruag, and now in the U.S. — they are in a factory next to ours in Decatur — that’s going to fly on Atlas 5 this year,” Louradour said.

Sometime in 2020 they will then fly an Atlas 5 launch using the solid rocket boosters Northrop Grumman is building for Vulcan.

This is not really news. When ULA announced their plans to build Vulcan in 2015, they said then that they intended to transition from Atlas 5 to Vulcan over time, slowly introducing components on Atlas 5 until it was entirely replaced.

Nonetheless, it shows that ULA is adopting some of the the same common sense development procedures used by SpaceX. By taking advantage of launches as they happen, they can speed development. And they need to do this in order to keep pace with SpaceX.

Isn’t competition wonderful?

Why ULA picked Blue Origin’s engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In an interview of ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno by Eric Berger of Ars Technica, he subtly revealed why his company in the end favored Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 in the design of the Vulcan rocket.

Unlike many of the new entrants that you talk about coming in today, we’re not a startup company living off investor capital; we’re a mature business. We have to close a business case on Vulcan itself. So where our strategic partners [Editor’s note: This is a reference to Blue Origin] brought investment as well as schedule, that was a pretty important factor. It became pretty obvious what the right choice was, and we arrived at it with our stakeholders.

In other words, Blue Origin’s willingness to invest its own capital in engine development was a major factor. Aerojet Rocketdyne was using the old model of big space, whereby all development money came from the government. It had been unwilling to commit any of its own funds to engine development. This reluctance implied it wasn’t really committed to the project. If Air Force funding disappeared, they’d back out, leaving ULA in the lurch.

This tidbit from Bruno also suggests that he and the management at ULA are sincerely working to reshape ULA from an old big space company, totally reliant on the subsidies given by the government, into a modern competitive company focused instead on building an affordable product that customers will want to buy.

This story also tells us a lot about Aerojet Rocketdyne’s future, or lack thereof. The rocket industry is changing, and if that company doesn’t change also, it will soon die.

First ULA Vulcan launch delayed a year to 2021

The first ULA Vulcan launch has been delayed a year to 2021.

In an interview [at a recent conference, John Elbon, chief operating officer of ULA,] said the shift in the first launch to April 2021 is linked to the requirements of the LSA award from the Air Force. “As the procurement schedule was laid out, the Air Force schedule changed, and we synced up with that,” he said, adding that the company was moving ahead with more aggressive internal schedules for Vulcan’s development.

“While ULA was on schedule from a technical standpoint to meet 2020 target, once we reviewed the Air Force’s timeline in the LSA proposals & incorporated [additional] requirements into our plan, we aligned #VulcanCentaur launch dates to meet the Air Force schedule,” the company tweeted.

The LSA awards were Air Force subsidies ranging from $500 to $1 billion given to ULA, Northrop Grumman, and Blue Origin last week to support development of their new rockets. And just as Blue Origin was forced to immediately delay its first New Glenn launch after obtaining this award, so has ULA.

In other words, gaining big development money from the Air Force forced both companies to delay their launch to meet the Air Force’s demands, something that SpaceX apparently decided not to do.

We shall see in the coming years which approach works best for making the most money. I favor SpaceX.

Has Aerojet Rocketdyne lost engine race with Blue Origin?

Aerojet Rocketdyne financial documents suggest that it has given up the bidding competition with Blue Origin to supply a rocket engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket.

The latest financial release from aerospace manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne reveals that the company spent none of its own money on development of the AR1 rocket engine this spring. Moreover, the quarterly 10-Q filing that covers financial data through June 30, 2018 indicates that Aerojet may permanently stop funding the engine with its own money altogether—a sign the company has no immediate customers.

Although Aerojet will continue to receive some funding from the US military through next year to develop its large, new rocket engine, this money won’t be enough to bring it to completion. Instead of having a flight-ready engine for use by the end of 2019, the filing indicates that Aerojet now intends to have just a single prototype completed within the time frame.

Essentially this means ULA will have no choice but to pick Blue Origin’s engine, unless the Air Force pulls its weight and demands it take Aerojet rocketdyne, even if that means a significant delay before Vulcan can launch.

Vulcan found?

Scientists have found a super-earth orbiting 40 Eridani-A, a star located sixteen light years away and proposed by Gene Roddenberry in 1991 as the home star for his race of logical Vulcans.

It turns out the letter authors’ prediction was right — a world really does orbit the primary star of the three-star 40 Eridani system. (Whether it’s home to a logic-based alien society, though, is anyone’s guess!)

The world is a super-Earth, the most common type of planet in the galaxy (though a type that’s missing from our solar system). At twice Earth’s radius and eight to nine times its mass, 40 Eridani b sits on the line that divides rocky super-Earths from gaseous ones. The planet orbits its star every 42 days, putting just inside the system’s habitable zone — in other words, where it’s nice and hot. At 16 light-years away, it’s the closest super-Earth known and therefore a good potential target for followup observations.

The discovery was made by a survey taking place using a relatively small telescope right here in the Tucson area, on top of Mount Lemmon. Most cool!

ULA picks Aerojet Rocketdyne engine for Vulcan upper stage

Capitalism in space: ULA has chosen an Aerojet Rocketdyne engine to power the upper stage of its next generation rocket Vulcan.

The company has not yet made a decision on the engine for the first stage, where Blue Origin’s BE-4 still appears favored over Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR-1 engine. This decision on the upper stage could partly be a political move, giving Aerojet the upper stage in order to make it easier to give the lower stage to Blue Origin.

ULA is forced to play politics here because politicians are involved. A number of power members of Congress want Aerojet Rocketdyne to get the business, and ULA risks offending these legislators should it abandon that company entirely.

Bezos releases video of BE-4 static fire test

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos today released a video of a 114 second engine test of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine.

I have embedded the video below the fold. The test was at 65% power, but it strongly suggests that the company is getting close to certifying this engine for use, which will then allow ULA to make its final decision on whether to use it in its Vulcan rocket. It also will allow Blue Origin to begin construction of its own New Glenn rocket, which is set to begin flights in 2020.
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Testing of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine continues

Though he released few details, a Blue Origin company official noted at a conference last week that the company has been continuing its tests of the BE-4 engine.

“We’re getting longer duration burn times. We’re going though validating the turbomachinery very closely,” said Jim Centore, group lead for orbital mission operations at Blue Origin, during a panel discussion on launch systems at the conference. Centore didn’t disclose many details about those tests, such as thrust levels or the burn times, either of individual tests or cumulatively. “We’re continuing to make good progress,” he said. “We’ll continue that for the next several months.”

The BE-4 is the linchpin for numerous other future rockets. Blue Origin wants to use it for building its New Glenn rocket. ULA is considering it as the first stage engine for its Vulcan rocket. In both cases, design and construction of the rockets themselves can’t really proceed until the engine is locked down.

Blue Origin successfully completes first test of BE-4 rocket engine

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin has successfully conducted the first static fire test of its BE-4 rocket engine.

The test was six seconds long. The company has not released any further details, other than to say it was a success. This not only puts them closer to building their New Glenn rocket, it increases the chances that ULA will choose this engine for its Vulcan rocket.

Bigelow and ULA propose lunar station

Capitalism in space: Bigelow, builders of expandable space station modules, and ULA, building of rockets, have jointly proposed building an inexpensive lunar space station for NASA, to be launched by 2022.

The announcement build upon existing work between the two companies to study launching B330 modules, originally on the Atlas 5, Bigelow Aerospace President Robert Bigelow said in an Oct. 17 interview. He said his company decided to shift to the Vulcan vehicle and then build upon its capabilities, such as the ACES upper stage that is intended to also serve as a refuelable space tug. “There is synchronicity between what ULA has in the way of capabilities and what we’re doing,” Bigelow said. “We decided to collaborate and prepare a proposal that the White House and NASA could accept as part of an overall space plan.”

Bigelow emphasized he saw this proposal as a public-private partnership. He estimated NASA’s share of the costs to be $2.3 billion, in addition to the “hundreds of millions” being spent by both Bigelow Aerospace and ULA. “It’s executable within four years of receiving funding and NASA giving us the word,” he said.

The lunar depot would be available for both NASA and commercial uses, according to Bigelow. It could be visited by NASA Orion spacecraft launched by the Space Launch System, but he said it’s possible other spacecraft, like a version of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, could also provide transportation to and from the facility.

Bigelow also went out of his way to say that this proposal was not meant to replace NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway, also a lunar space station, but as a quicker and cheaper supplement that could be launched and put into service while the gateway was being built.

In other words, Bigelow wishes to be to the Deep Space Gateway what SpaceX has been to SLS/Orion, the real thing while Congress continues to pour money into a parallel boondoggle that never goes anywhere.

Blue Origin to build its rocket engines in Alabama

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin announced today that it will build its BE-4 rocket engine factory in Alabama.

There is one caveat. They will only commit to the factory once they have won their contract to build the BE-4 engine for ULA’s Vulcan rocket. And that contract is not yet awarded.

Obviously, this decision has political components. By picking Alabama, Blue Origin hopes to blunt the political favoritism in Alabama to Aerojet Rocketdyne’s rocket engine, thus improving their chances of winning the ULA contract.

ULA prepares to choose engine for Vulcan

Capitalism in space: ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno announced at a space conference this week that should Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine pass its testing phase his company will be prepared to select it for their Vulcan rocket.

Bruno also said that no decision has yet been made, and that Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine remains an option, though it is 18 to 24 months behind in development.

Blue Origin engine test might delay ULA decision on Vulcan engine

ULA will delay its final decision on the engine it will use for its new Vulcan rocket until Blue Origin successfully completes a scheduled static fire engine test, originally schedule for late this year but possibly delayed until 2017.

“It’s really tied not so much to the calendar but to a technical event,” [Tory Bruno, CEO of ULA,] said of the schedule for an engine decision. “We want to have a full-scale static firing of the BE-4, so that we understand that it’s going to hit its performance and it’s going to be stable…. That may occur by the end of the year, but I could see it moving into the spring a little bit, to make sure we have enough test data and we feel confident about where we’re at,” he added.

He emphasized that the BE-4 remained the “primary path” to be used on the first stage of the Vulcan, ahead of the AR1 engine under development by Aerojet Rocketdyne. “They’re out in front,” Bruno said of the BE-4.

This engine test is not only critical for ULA, but its success will help firm up Blue Origin’s developmental schedule for its just announced New Glenn rocket.

Bruno’s comments at the link also suggest that ULA, like Arianespace, is pushing to grab some of the customers of SpaceX and Russia, both of whom are now experiencing launch delays.

More evidence ULA will pick Blue Origin over Aerojet Rocketdyne

In a press interview published in late July, a ULA executive confirmed that the company is going to pick Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for its new Vulcan rocket.

ULA used a Russian engine for its expendable Atlas V booster but has long relied on U.S. suppliers such as Aerojet Rocketdyne. For Vulcan’s reusable engine, ULA is turning to Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin. The company’s cutting-edge BE-4 is powered by liquid natural gas instead of kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

By partnering with a startup like Blue Origin, ULA gains other advantages. “There is a world of difference between the culture at Blue Origin and the culture at Aerojet Rocketdyne,” said [Dr. George F. Sowers, ULA’s vice president for advanced programs]. “We knew we could absorb some of their culture by osmosis, just by working with them.” That influence shows up in cross-team collaboration. “We are literally breaking down walls to create a ‘Silicon Valley’ workspace,” Sowers said.

Sowers is very careful to say nothing about the Atlas 5 and the engine that will replace the Russian engine in its first stage. ULA originally signed its deal with Blue Origin with the Atlas 5 in mind, but has not made a final decision between Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne because Congress appears to favor Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine, and Congress is a very big gorilla you do not upset. However, their development plans for Vulcan are incremental and closely linked with the Atlas 5. They plan to introduce Vulcan piecemeal in various upgrades of Atlas 5 as they go, so if they are set on using Blue Origin’s engine in the Vulcan rocket, it probably means that they plan on using it to replace the Russian engine in Atlas 5. This interview appears to confirm this.

ULA chief says Congress deal clears path to Vulcan

The competition heats up: The CEO of ULA, Tory Bruno, said in an industry publication interview today that the Congressional deal that allows the company to buy 22 more Russian engines for its Atlas 5 clears the way for their eventual transition to the Vulcan rocket and an end to dependence on those Russian engines.

The article is worth a careful read, as it also provides a very detailed look at ULA’s future plans for its Atlas 5, Delta 4 Heavy, and Vulcan rockets. This paragraph was especially interesting:

The next major milestone is determining what engine will replace the [Russian] RD-180. Washington-based Blue Origin is developing the BE-4, a privately funded Liquid Oxygen (Lox) and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) engine capable of 550,000 pounds of thrust (lbf); and California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne is creating the AR1, a government-supported Lox/Kerosene (RP-1) engine capable of 500,000lbf. Either replacement will require two engines to match the power of the RD-180. Blue Origin claims its engine, already four years into development, will be flight qualified by 2017, while Aerojet Rocketdyne, having started its development later, says the AR1 will be flight qualified by 2019. Bruno said ULA would make its decision soon.

“Sometime close to the end of the year we are going to down-select, and then move into our Critical Design Review (CDR) and start manufacturing the rocket,” he said.

I strongly suspect they want to go with Blue Origin’s engine, because it is more powerful, farther along in development, and almost certainly less expensive. The question will be whether pressure from Congress, which favors Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine for pork barrel reasons (Congress is funding it), will force ULA to go with it instead.

Aerojet Rocketdyne pitches its AR1 rocket engine to reporters

The competition heats up: At a space conference this week Aerojet Rocketdyne pitched its AR1 rocket engine, still under development, as the ideal replacement for the Russian engine in the Atlas 5.

The U.S. Air Force awarded Aerojet Rocketdyne a contract in February worth up to $534 million over five years to certify and start delivering flight-ready AR1 engines in 2019. Aerojet Rocketdyne says it already has kicked in $70 million, with its total investment expected to exceed $250 million over the life of the contract.

Van Kleeck, vice president of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s advanced space and launch business unit, said the Air Force contract — the largest of several propulsion-related awards the service has made in recent months — is a sign of the Air Force’s confidence in the AR1’s ability to provide an expedient replacement for the RD-180 engine the Defense Department is under pressure from Congress to stop using.

United Launch Alliance, however, has anointed Blue Origin’s methane-fueled BE-4 engine as the front runner to replace the RD-180 by serving as the main engine for the Denver company’s next-generation rocket Vulcan.

“The AR1 engine can fly both on an Atlas and Vulcan and it’s the only engine that can do so,” Van Kleeck said.

Aerojet has been losing business to the newer commercial space companies like Blue Origin, and desperately needs to find a customer for the AR1. In the long run the Air Force contract won’t suffice, as it really is no more than government corporate welfare and cannot sustain them as a company. This press conference was part of that effort.

Vulcan passes first design review

The competition heats up: ULA’s Vulcan rocket has passed its first design review.

This is good news for ULA, but I wouldn’t get too excited. Announcements like this often have little to do with any real construction, and are often made to give the impression to the public and Congress and other investors that something is happening. Right now, all ULA is doing is pushing paper around. Only when they start cutting metal and testing real equipment will I consider Vulcan for real.

The article does provide an interesting tidbit. Despite protests that ULA hasn’t yet made a decision between Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne for the first stage engine of Vulcan, it was Blue Origin’s engine that they used for the design review, suggesting that this is the engine they plan on using in the real rocket.

ULA’s parent companies express caution about Vulcan

The competition heats up? The executives in charge of ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, today expressed mixed support for the development of the Vulcan rocket, designed to replace the Atlas 5.

For more than a year, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been investing in the rocket on a quarter-by-quarter basis and the ULA board leaders said this week that the practice would continue. “We have to be prudent, disciplined stewards of any kind of investment,” Ambrose [Lockheed Martin] said. “Vulcan would be like any other investment decision.”

In September 2015, ULA’s leaders said a ban by Congress on the Russian RD-180 rocket engine, which powers ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket, was a leading driver behind the measured investment in Vulcan. But that issue was temporarily resolved in December, when Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) used a must-pass spending bill to eliminate the engine restrictions that had become law just weeks earlier.

Now, Ambrose pointed to “uncertainties” with launch policy, while Cooning [Boeing] said disagreements between lawmakers and the Air Force on the best approach for ending RD-180 dependence have given them pause, further justifying a “cautious and conservative approach.”

In other words, now that the law requiring a quick replacement of the Russian engine has been repealed, these executives feel less compunction to build Vulcan, something I had sensed in December and had commented on. As a result, they are telling us, in their tangled corporate ways, that they are not going to invest much of their own money on Vulcan, unless the government forks up a lot of cash for them to proceed.

XCOR wins Vulcan engine design contract

The competition heats up: ULA has awarded XCOR a design contract for building an upper stage rocket engine for the Vulcan rocket.

This is good news for XCOR, though there is one important caveat: A close reading of the press release at the link shows that the contract does not guarantee that ULA will use this engine in Vulcan. XCOR must deliver, and ULA must be satisfied with what they produce.

ULA buys 20 more Russian engines for Atlas 5

With the Congressional ban on buying Russian rocket engines lifted, ULA today wasted no time and immediately purchased 20 more engines from its Russian supplier to use in its Atlas 5 rocket.

I could also title this post “The Death of the Vulcan Rocket”. With at least 20 engines available, ULA no longer has any need to develop that new rocket. The Air Force is still willing to overpay for Atlas 5 launches, and they will now have enough engines to fly that rocket for probably 5 to 10 more years. Since there have already been indications that the bean-counters at ULA have been reluctant to fund Vulcan’s development, I expect them to now kill it.

This of course will be a very short-sighted decision. They might get some business with the Altas 5 and the Delta from the government for those few years, but this will not make them competitive in the new rocket industry. Eventually, they are going to go the way of the American steel industry, which failed to innovate and compete with foreign companies, and in the end lost its business to those foreign companies.

In the case of aerospace, however, the competition is coming from American companies. And that is wholly to the good.

ULA’s fight to use Russian engines continues

This article provides a detailed account of the political battle between ULA and Congress of its future use of Russian engines in its Atlas 5 rocket.

Congress has imposed a strict limit on the number of engines the company can use. ULA is still lobbying for an increase, claiming that the limit will mean that they will not be able to meet the government military launch needs for a few years when the engines on hand run out and its new American-built engines are not yet available.

In the long run I think this battle is irrelevant. What really matters is what it costs to launch a satellite, and ULA is simply not focused on reducing its costs. Consider this quote from the article, emphasis mine:

ULA has designed a new rocket dubbed Vulcan that features a U.S.-made engine, but this vehicle will not be available until around 2021, assuming the project gets funded — which is by no means a given.

They made a big deal earlier this year about how Vulcan will soon replace Atlas 5 at a lower cost, but it now appears that this was merely a public relations event. ULA wants someone else to pay for this new rocket, and thus has not yet committed any of its own money to begin actual development.

Other companies however are funding the development of their own new American-made rockets that will also be far cheaper to fly. Sooner rather than later our spendthrift Congress is going to mandate that the military use those cheaper rockets. If ULA doesn’t get moving it will be left in the dust, whether or not Congress allows it to use more Russian engines.

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