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.

Space Force awards SpaceX and ULA new launch contracts worth $2.5 billion

Space Force yesterday awarded both SpaceX and ULA new launch contracts worth $2.5 billion and totaling 21 launches over the next two to three years.

The final batch of assignments were split almost evenly, according to Col. Doug Pentecost, the deputy program executive officer of the Space Force’s Space Systems Command. ULA received 11 missions, valued at $1.3 billion, and SpaceX received 10 missions, valued at $1.23 billion.

Space Systems Command said the missions are scheduled to launch over the next two to three years. ULA, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, will use its soon-to-debut Vulcan rocket for the 11 missions, while SpaceX will fly seven missions with its Falcon 9 rocket and three missions with its Falcon Heavy rocket.

For SpaceX this award is no surprise. The ULA contract is more puzzling. Supposedly the Space Force was not going to award any launch contracts for ULA’s new Vulcan rocket until it successfully launched twice and was certified by the military as operational. Yet, it has now awarded ULA this contract for Vulcan launches. Has the military awarded the contract on a contingency basis? What happens if Vulcan has a failure on one of its first two launches?

The Space Force’s present arrangement limits bidding for launches to just these two companies. If Vulcan fails will it open bidding to other companies, or will it transfer launches to SpaceX?

ULA sets Christmas Eve as launch date for first Vulcan rocket launch

In an interview for CNBC, ULA’s CEO revealed that the company has now scheduled the first orbital launch of its new Vulcan rocket for December 24, 2023, Christmas Eve, with a backup launch window in January.

The rocket will carry Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, targeting the western edge of the lunar mare dubbed Mare Imbrium. It will also carry human ashes to be buried in space, from the private company Celestis.

Vulcan was also originally supposed to carry Amazon’s first two test Kuiper satellites, but the delays in developing Vulcan forced ULA to use an Atlas-5 rocket instead, that launched on October 6th.

If the launch is successful, the company will try to quickly ramp up its launch pace to 24 times per year, in order to meet the contract for 47 launches it has with Amazon to launch Kuiper satellites, as well as its contract obligations to the Pentagon to launch military satellites.

Update on the status of Vulcan, Ariane-6, and New Glenn

Link here. This excellent article is focused on whether these three new rockets, none of which has yet completed its first test flight, will be able to meet their launch contract obligations with Amazon, which needs to launch at least 1,600 satellites of its Kuiper broadband constellation by July 2026 to meet its FCC license requirements. Those requirements also obligate Amazon to have the full constellation of about 3,200 satellites in orbit by July 2029.

The launch contracts to these three untried rockets was the largest such contract ever issued, involving 83 launches and billions of dollars.

To sum up where things stand in terms of the first test launch of each rocket:
» Read more

ULA officially admits first Vulcan launch is delayed to end of year

Though the announcement was not news or unexpected, ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno yesterday officially confirmed that the first Vulcan launch will not occur before the fourth quarter of this year, not this summer as hoped.

In a call with reporters July 13, Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, said the changes to the Centaur upper stage stemmed from an investigation into a test mishap in March, where hydrogen leaked from a Centaur test article and ignited, damaging both the stage and the test rig. The company announced June 24 that it would delay the launch to make “minor reinforcements” to the Centaur.

Bruno also poo-pooed the significance of a failure of a Blue Origin BE-4 engine during a static fire test in mid-June, a failure that had been kept secret until this week.

“This doesn’t indict the qualification at all,” he said, noting that BE-4 engines have more than 26,000 seconds of cumulative runtime. “We’re very confident in the design and the workmanship of the assets that have passed acceptance. This is not unexpected.”

Forgive me if I don’t take him entirely at his word. I guarantee his engineers are looking at that failure very closely to make absolutely sure it doesn’t indicate issues with the two engines on that first Vulcan rocket. It is very likely this is part of the reason that first launch is now delayed until the end of the year.

Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine explodes during test

This failure has been kept very quiet, but on June 11, 2023 during a static fire engine test of a Blue Origin BE-4 rocket engine, it exploded 10 seconds into the test.

During a firing on June 30 at a West Texas facility of Jeff Bezos’ space company, a BE-4 engine detonated about 10 seconds into the test, according to several people familiar with the matter. Those people described having seen video of a dramatic explosion that destroyed the engine and heavily damaged the test stand infrastructure. The people spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters.

The engine that exploded was expected to finish testing in July. It was then scheduled to ship to Blue Origin’s customer United Launch Alliance for use on ULA’s second Vulcan rocket launch, those people said.

The story is based on anonymous sources, but if true it means another serious setback for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket. Vulcan has the BE-4 engines it needs to launch its first Vulcan, but it might feel forced to delay that launch until it receives the analysis of this failed test.

It also means that even after more than a decade of development, Blue Origin has still not worked out all the kinks in its BE-4 engine. This inability does not speak well for the company. Are they not testing enough? Are they not questioning their designs enough?

Space Force awards SpaceX and ULA contracts for six launches each

As part of its long term launch agreement with SpaceX and ULA, the Space Force today awarded both companies contracts for six launches each, all to occur beginning in 2025.

According to the overall agreement, each company got five-year contracts to launch as many as 40 missions. ULA won 60% of the missions and SpaceX 40%. However, the delays to ULA’s Vulcan rocket will likely change those numbers:

In a report released June 8, the Government Accountability Office noted that the NSSL program office continues to order launch services from ULA and SpaceX amid concerns about Vulcan’s delays. “ULA delayed the first certification flight of the Vulcan launch system … to accommodate challenges with the BE-4 engine and a delayed commercial payload, nearly two years later than originally planned,” said GAO. “In the event that Vulcan is unavailable for future missions, program officials stated that the Phase 2 contract allows for the ability to reassign missions to the other provider.”

One of the reasons that ULA has not hurried its effort to make Vulcan reusable and more competitive with SpaceX is that is already has this guaranteed military launch commitment. It doesn’t need to be as competitive.

What needs to happen is a third or fourth company has to enter the market, giving the military other options. The military also has to cancel this long term launch agreement, which limits the number of companies it will do business with to just SpaceX and ULA. It would be much better to open the competition up to everyone. The ULA would be forced to compete.

ULA completes dress rehearsal launch countdown and static fire test of Vulcan

ULA yesterday successfully completed a full dress rehearsal launch countdown new Vulcan rocket, including a short 2-second static fire test of the rocket’s two first stage BE-4 engines.

A Vulcan rocket fired its two BE-4 engines in a static-fire test called the Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) at 9:05 p.m. Eastern from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41. The engine start sequence started at T-4.88 seconds, ULA said in a statement an hour after the test, with the engines throttling up to their target level for two seconds before shutting down, concluding the six-second test.

The test appeared to go as planned. “Nominal run,” Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, tweeted moments after the test.

This dress rehearsal had originally been scheduled for late May, but issues on the rocket required ULA to scrub the launch and return the rocket to the assembly building.

There appear to be only three issues remaining before that first launch can occur. First there is the hydrogen leak that caused the destruction of the rocket’s Centaur upper stage during a static fire engine test in March. The company has apparently still not determined what action — if any — must be taken on this.

Second is whether the rocket’s primary payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, is ready for launch. It appears it has completed all ground testing, but there were questions whether its software has been adjusted for a new landing site that NASA assigned it in February.

Third is scheduling. Peregrine’s monthly launch windows are only four to five days long each month. This limitation also has to be juggled with other ULA launches on the same launchpad, using its soon-to-be retired Atlas-5 rocket.

Vulcan launchpad static fire engine test aborted

ULA engineers were forced yesterday to abort their first attempt to complete a launchpad static fire engine test of the first stage of the company’s new Vulcan rocket due to an issue with “the booster’s ignition system.”

[D]uring the countdown at Launch Complex 41 Thursday afternoon, ULA teams “observed a delayed response from the booster engine ignition system,” the company said in a statement. The issue meant that countdown procedures ahead of the ignition of two Blue Origin-built BE-4 engines at the business end of the company’s new rocket had to be halted.

The roughly 200-foot rocket will have to be rolled back into ULA’s nearly 300-foot protective Vertical Integration Facility for technicians to assess the booster’s ignition system.

It will obviously be necessary to attempt this static fire test again before attaching the rocket’s solid-fueled side boosters, which suggests the launch’s tentative target date in June is likely threatened.

These kinds of issues are not unexpected prior to a rocket’s first launch. ULA however is now paying for the three-plus year delay imposed on it by Blue Origin’s delays in delivering the BE-4 engines used in that first stage. These pre-launch tests had been planned for 2020, not 2023. Let us hope that ULA engineers don’t rush these tests now, because of those Blue Origin delays.

ULA’s first Vulcan rocket returns to assembly building after fueling tests

After completing a tanking test, engineers have now moved ULA s first Vulcan rocket back to the assembly building for some additional work prior to the first wet dress rehearsal countdown and static fire test.

A ULA spokesperson said the company’s engineers “collected excellent data” during the May 12 tanking test, which mimicked a launch countdown with holds, readiness polls, and other milestones. “Based on the test, there are several parameters that will be adjusted prior to conducting the Flight Readiness Firing,” the ULA spokesperson said in a statement. “We are rolling back to the Vertical Integration Facility, where our access is better and the vehicle is protected to isolate and perform those adjustments.”

The static fire test will occur prior to attaching two strap-on solid-fueled side boosters, provided by Northrop Grumman, that are needed for the first launch. That launch is presently scheduled for sometime this summer, but first the static fire test has to take place successfully, with no issues, and these boosters need to be attached.

ULA delays first launch of Vulcan to June at the earliest

Peregrine landing site

An official from Astrobotics confirmed this week that an explosion during testing of the Centaur upper stage of its new Vulcan rocket will delay that rocket’s first launch for at least one to two months, from May to June or July.

On March 29, Tory Bruno, the CEO of Colorado-based spacecraft makers United Launch Alliance LLC, announced on his personal Twitter account that ULA’s Vulcan Centaur V rocket had experienced “an anomaly,” which preceded a tweet he shared on April 13 that showed a video of an explosion that occurred outside of a testing rig that housed the ULA rocket. He alluded to a hydrogen-related leak as being a possible culprit and in response the next day to other replies, Bruno said in a tweet that “June/July” will be the next earliest estimated launch timeline.

That timeline is the same one that John Thornton, CEO of North Side-based Astrobotic, shared during a speech as part of a kickoff event for the Aviation and Robotics Summit in the Strip District on Tuesday.

The main payload on that Vulcan inaugural launch is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, carrying several NASA science instruments to the Gruithusien Domes region on the Moon, as indicated by the white dot on the picture above.

Starliner’s first manned mission to ISS delayed again

According to a tweet by a NASA official, the first manned mission to ISS of Boeing’s Starliner capsule, carrying two NASA astronauts, has been delayed again, from the planned late April launch to sometime during the summer.

No reasons for the delay were given, as yet. The second link notes however that a schedule conflict at ULA, which is launching Starliner on its Atlas-5 rocket, might be part of the reason.

A launch in late April [of Starliner on the Atlas-5] would have put it in conflict with the inaugural launch of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket, currently scheduled for as soon as May 4. Vulcan and Atlas use the same launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, and ULA has been conducting tests of the Vulcan rocket on that pad. It has not shared updates on the status of the Atlas 5 used for Starliner.

This conflict might also explain why Starliner itself has not yet been fueled, since Boeing officials have said they want to do this within 60 days of launch to avoid the same kind of valve leaks that delayed the second unmanned demo mission for almost a year.

Starliner itself is years behind schedule, a long delay that has cost Boeing an enormous amount of income. First, the problems during the first unmanned demo flight in December 2019 forced the company to do a second unmanned demo flight, on its own dime costing about $400 million. That second flight was then delayed because of those valve issues. All the delays next cost Boeing income from NASA, as the agency was forced to purchase many manned flights from SpaceX that it had intended to buy from Boeing.

ULA now targets May 4th for first Vulcan launch

According to ULA’s CEO, the company has now scheduled the first launch of its Vulcan rocket for May 4, 2023, a delay of about a month from the previous schedule.

The delay to the new date was caused by a variety of factors. First, the launch window for the prime payload, Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander, is only open certain days of the month. Second, that lander is just finishing final testing, and the extra time was needed to get it to Cape Canaveral and stacked on the rocket. Third, the extra time was needed to complete all the dress rehearsal countdown tests prior to launch. However, the biggest reason for the delay appears to have been one of Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engines.

ULA and Blue Origin are finishing the formal qualification of the BE-4 engine, which Bruno described as the “pacing item” for the launch. “It’s taking a little bit longer than anticipated.”

He revealed that, in a qualification test of one of two engines, the liquid oxygen pump had about 5% higher performance than expected or seen on other engines. “When the performance of your hardware has even a small shift that you didn’t expect, sometimes that is telling us that there could be something else going on in the system that is potentially of greater concern.”

ULA and Blue Origin decided to take the engine off the test stand and disassemble it. Engineers concluded that the higher performance was just “unit-to-unit variation” and not a problem with the engine itself, Bruno said.

If Blue Origin was manufacturing and testing these engines as it needs to do, in large numbers, it would have known a long time ago the range of “unit-to-unit variation” in performance. That this is not known at this late time once again tells us that the company is still struggling to build these engines routinely. Yet it will soon need to produce plenty in short order in order to sustain not only ULA’s Vulcan launch schedule but the launch schedule of its own New Glenn rocket.

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.

ULA closing facility in Texas that makes parts for the retiring Atlas-5 rocket

ULA has announced that it is shutting down its facility in Harlingen, Texas, that makes parts for the company’s soon-to-be retired Atlas-5 rocket.

The facility will shut down at the end of this year, with a loss of about 100 jobs.

This closure is actually a very positive sign for ULA. It indicates that it is streamlining its operations. For example, construction of the Vulcan rocket that replaces the Atlas-5 is all done in Alabama. One of the reasons Atlas-5 cost so much was the widespread distribution of its ULA facilities, probably done to satisfy congressional demands.

With Vulcan, ULA has instead been much more focused on making it less expensive so it can compete with SpaceX. Thus, it simplified its construction, putting everything in Alabama. (Choosing Alabama was likely to satisfy the most powerful senator at the time, porkmeister Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), who has now retired.)

Two die at Northrop Grumman facility that makes solid rocket boosters

Two individuals died last night from an as-yet unknown cause at the Northrop Grumman Bacchus facility in Utah that makes solid rocket strap-on boosters for ULA’s rockets.

Further details about what exactly led to the deaths and who died were not made available.

The West Valley City Fire and Police Departments said they responded to the Bacchus facility after the two employees were found unconscious. Crews attempted life-saving measures and transported the two employees to the hospital, where they later died.

An investigation into the incident is ongoing by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Depending on circumstances, delivery of strap-on boosters for upcoming Atlas-5 and Vulcan launches could be impacted.

Hat tip to Jay, BtB’s stringer.

First Vulcan rocket arrives at Cape Canaveral

ULA’s first Vulcan rocket has now arrived at Cape Canaveral in preparation for its planned inaugural launch before the end of March.

This first mission for Vucan will fly in a VC2S configuration. “VC” stands for “Vulcan Centaur.” The number, in this case “2,” represents the number of solid rocket boosters needed and the final letter stands for the payload fairing length.

VC2S will use a 51-foot-long Standard payload fairing. Nestled inside will be a few different payloads. This mission will send the first two Kuiper prototype satellites into Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to the Moon and a Celestis Memorial Spaceflight payload into deep space. The remains of several people connected to the original Star Trek series will be launched on what Celestis dubbed the “Enterprise Flight,” including show creator Gene Roddenberry along with actors Nichelle Nichols and Jackson DeForest Kelley.

This first Vulcan launch will also be the first of two flights required by the Pentagon in order to certify Vulcan for military launches. Since ULA already has contracts for seven Vulcan military launches, it very much wants to get these two launches off this year, as soon as possible. According to the article at the link, ULA is thus aiming to fly this year those two test flights, followed quickly by the first military launch.

Whether it can complete three Vulcan launches in 2023 is quite uncertain. For example, it will need to get four more BE-4 engines from Blue Origin for the second and third launches, and there is no indication at this time that Blue Origin is close to delivering.

Then there is the delays and risks involved with this first launch. Though ULA has decades of experience building and launching rockets, the first launch of a rocket almost always experiences delays during testing. We should expect the same with Vulcan.

Assuming this schedule holds, however, this means ULA is targeting 10 launches in 2023, five Atlas-5 launches, two Delta Heavy launches, and three Vulcan launches. That would be the most launches by this company in a year since 2016.

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.

November 11, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay.



Remains or DNA samples of numerous Star Trek actors/creators to be sent into space

Because the space burial company Celestis has now made agreements to fly into space the remains or DNA samples of so many actors or creators from the classic Star Trek television series on its next burial flight, it has named that flight its “Enterprise Mission.”

Slipping the gravitational bonds of Earth early next year, the Enterprise Flight will blast off in early 2023 using United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket carrying additional cremated remains and DNA samples of “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, his wife Majel Barrett Roddenberry, “Star Trek” engineer James “Scotty” Doohan, and “2001: A Space Odyssey” VFX wizard Douglas Trumbull.

The Enterprise Flight’s trajectory will send the spacecraft roughly 93 million miles to 186 million miles (150 million to 300 million kilometers) into deep space beyond our familiar Earth-moon system. Celestis’ memorial mission intends on launching over 200 space burial flight capsules comprised of cremated ash remains, special messages, mementos and DNA samples from a range of international customers headed towards the great mystery of interplanetary space.

The flight will also include the remains or DNA samples from special effects artist Greg Jein, the series original associated producer Robert H. Justman, and actors Nichelle Nichols and DeForest Kelly.

What makes this burial flight especially unique is that the cremated remains and DNA samples will apparently be on a part of the Vulcan rocket that will escape Earth orbit and enter solar orbit.

ULA breaks ground on new facility in Alabama

ULA yesterday broke ground on the construction of a new facility in Alabama, where it will store its Vulcan rockets and build the fairings for that rocket.

The factory is scheduled to begin operations in 2024. According to ULA’S CEO, Tori Bruno, the facility will double the production rate for making Vulcan rockets, necessary to provide the launches that Amazon wants for its Kuiper internet constellation.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine experiences more delays

Capitalism in space: Though Blue Origin appears only a few weeks from delivering its first flightworthy BE-4 rocket engine to ULA for use in that company’s new not-yet-launched Vulcan rocket, the second flightworthy engine is further delayed due to technical problems discovered when static fire testing began.

Sources told Ars that the first engine was put onto the test stand in Texas early in August, but almost as soon as work began to hot-fire the powerful engine, an issue was discovered with the engine build. This necessitated a shipment back to Blue Origin’s factory in mid-August, as the company’s test stands in Texas do not allow for more than minor work.

As a result of this technical issue, ULA now appears likely to get one flight engine this month, but it probably will not receive the other one for installation onto the Vulcan rocket before mid-October, assuming a clean battery of tests in Texas.

This issue almost certainly means that Vulcan will not attempt its first launch this year. The rocket is thus more than three years behind schedule.

The problems outlined here however are far greater than simply the technical issues with this one engine. First, Blue Origin’s pace of operations continues to be far too leisurely. Nothing the company has done since 2017 has proceeded with any sense of urgency, and thus neither ULA nor Blue Origin have been able to launch their rockets.

Second, and far more important, Blue Origin is supposed to be manufacturing the BE-4 for two rockets, both Vulcan and its own New Glenn. Neither rocket will be reusable to begin with, which means the number of needed engines required at first will be high. For example, ULA has contracts to launch Vulcan twice almost immediately, with the need to follow these with several military launches. Each launch will require two BE-4 engines, so Blue Origin at a minimum needs to manufacture four engines, probably more, just to fulfill its obligations to ULA. To supply its own New Glenn rocket, it needs seven BE-4 engines for each launch, with the company having four launches on its manifest for 2023.

All told, Blue Origin thus has to deliver, at a minimum, 32 engines in 2023 alone, to meet its contractual obligations. And since the rockets and engines will be untested, expect at least one or two launch failures that will further increase the need for more engines.

Yet, there is no sign that Blue Origin has figured out how to manufacture these engines on an assembly line basis. Even if it gets these two engines delivered soon, it is unclear it can produce a lot of flightworthy engines fast enough to meet this launch schedule. Expect therefore that both rockets will continue to experience launch delays that could stretch out years.

Meanwhile, a plethora of new rocket companies have been appearing, all aiming eventually to compete with Blue Origin and ULA. If Blue Origin doesn’t get a move on, these new companies will soon be in a position to replace both it and ULA, entirely.

August 29, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay:

As I’ve said numerous times, I’ll believe this engine is a flight engine when I see it in flight.

The link goes to the research paper from the Beijing Institute of Space Mechanics and Electricity, which is in Chinese except for the abstract. This tweet highlights the “leg deploying test and full-scale landing impact experiment” from that paper.

August 23, 2022 Quick space links

Courtesy of BtB’s stringer Jay:

NASA delays launch of its VIPER lunar rover to over concerns about commercial lander

VIPER's planned route on the Moon
VIPER’s planned route at the Moon’s south pole

In order to do more engineering tests of Astrobotic’s Griffin lunar lander, NASA has now delayed the launch of its VIPER lunar rover from November 2023 to November 2024.

NASA’s decision to pursue a 2024 delivery date results from the agency’s request to Astrobotic for additional ground testing of the company’s Griffin lunar lander, which will deliver VIPER to the lunar surface through CLPS. The additional tests aim to reduce the overall risk to VIPER’s delivery to the Moon. To complete the additional NASA-mandated tests of the Griffin lunar lander, an additional $67.8 million has been added to Astrobotic’s CLPS contract, which now totals $320.4 million.

Though the press release makes no mention of it, the launch of Astrobotic’s Griffin lander is partly dependent on the launch of Astrobotic’s first and smaller lunar lander, Peregrine, which was originally supposed to fly on the inaugural flight of ULA’s new Vulcan rocket, in 2021. That rocket’s first flight however has been delayed repeatedly because of delays by Blue Origin in completing development of the BE-4 rocket engine, to be used in Vulcan’s first stage. It is presently scheduled for early 2023, but that date remains tentative. This new delay of Griffin could be to make sure Peregrine flies first.

Regardless, this new budget increase means that the budget for Griffin has experienced a 62% cost overrun from its original $199 million number. This large increase in what is supposed to be a fixed price contract suggests that Astrobotic has been having some problems unstated by NASA, despite an inspector general report [pdf] that said all was going reasonably well.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine set for “commissioning” tests

Capitalism in space: According to a tweet from Blue Origin on June 21, 2022, engineers have finally installed a flight-worthy engine on the test stand in Huntsville for static fire “commissioning” tests.

This is an engine that was supposed to be delivered to ULA for its new Vulcan rocket more than two years ago. With final engine tests only beginning now, it likely means the engine will not be delivered for at least several more months.

ULA will then have to install it in the rocket, and do its own fueling and static fire tests. All this suggests that a Vulcan launch before the end of this year is almost impossible.

When Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket will fly using the BE-4 is utterly unknown. ULA at least has built a full-scale test version of Vulcan and done launch countdown rehearsals in order to iron out issues with its launchpad and ground systems. Blue Origin has done none of this.

Vulcan likely delayed until ’23

According to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, continuing delays with both the rocket’s payload and main engines, ULA’s Vulcan rocket will almost certainly not launch before the end of this year, as hoped by the company.

The rocket’s first stage BE-4 engines are being built by Blue Origin, and are already four years behind schedule. According to Berger’s sources, they will not be delivered to ULA until mid-August, which makes a launch in ’22 very unlikely, especially because both the engines and rocket are new, and will need time for fitting and further testing as a unit.

As for the payload, Berger’s assessment is not based on any new information. The payload, Astrobotic’s first lunar lander dubbed Peregrine, has also been experiencing delays, but the article provides no further information on whether it will miss its targets to be ready in ’22.

Regardless, it appears that Blue Origin is still dragging in its effort to build the BE-4 engine. If Vulcan cannot launch this year, it will threaten ULA’s long term future, since the company is depending on it to replace its Atlas-5 and Delta rockets. The delays now are allowing others to catch up and grab business that ULA might have garnered had Vulcan been operational as planned.

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.

Blue Origin delays 1st New Glenn launch again

Capitalism in space: At a conference earlier this week Blue Origin officials confirmed that the first test flight of its orbital New Glenn rocket will not occur in ’22, but will be delayed again, into ’23.

New Glenn was originally supposed to launch in 2020, and has been delayed repeatedly since then, first because of new requirements imposed by the military and then because of delays in getting Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine operational.

Though ULA is still aiming to launch its Vulcan rocket using the BE-4 in 2022, expect it to eventually recognize reality and delay also to ’23. That rocket was also supposed to make its first launch in ’20, and has been delayed for the same reasons.

These delays have cost both companies dearly. For example, had each been operational as planned, they might have won some or all of the launch contracts that OneWeb lost from the Russians. Instead, that business went to SpaceX.

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