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.

ULA and Orbital ATK ink new rocket motor contract

The competition heats up: ULA has signed a new contract with Orbital ATK to provide solid rocket motors for its Atlas 5 and Vulcan rockets.

This deal is another nail in the coffin of Aerojet Rocketdyne, as it strongly suggests that the corporate leadership at ULA is very uninterested in doing any business with that rocket engine builder. Recently they have been taking their business every where but to Aerojet.

Aerojet Rocketdyne lobbies its rocket engines to Congress and ULA

The competition heats up: Officials at Aerojet Rocketdyne yesterday lobbied hard for Congress and ULA to finance and buy their new AR-1 engine, designed to replace the Russian engines used in the Atlas 5 rocket.

More here, including the threat by those officials that the development of the engine could slip past 2019 if Congress doesn’t give the company more money.

The first comment at the bottom of the page of the first article above I think possibly outlines some of the reasons behind Aerojet Rocketdyne’s bid to buy ULA.

The development of the Blue Origin BE-4 is underway, and a launch vehicle like the proposed Vulcan would certainly be an asset to national security and commercial space development. But, as was stated, such a LNG/LO2 vehicle would need a different infrastructure to support it. ULA’s Atlas V is the most mature and reliable [launch vehicle] we have. The problem with it is a political one, because of its using the Russian RD-180 engine. From what has been published, plugging the BE-4 into an Atlas V is a non-starter; the BE-4 is meant for the Vulcan…if ULA can obtain funding on something more than a per-quarter schedule! Aerojet-Rocketdyne’s AR-1 would be a more logical choice to replace the RD-180, BUT…ULA won’t release the Interface Control Documents (ICD’s) to Aerojet-Rocketdyne. Hence, AR’s attempt to buy ULA.

ULA and Blue Origin sign new agreement

The competition heats up: ULA and Blue Origin have signed a new agreement expanding the production of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine for ULA’s new Vulcan rocket.

This agreement and the timing of its announcement, one day after news leaked that rocket engine manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne is making a bid to buy ULA, suggest that there are people in ULA that want to make sure the agreements with Blue Origin are set in stone should the purchase comes true.

Stratolaunch update

This article about Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch company notes that the payload the system will put in orbit is likely to be less than originally hoped.

Still to be determined are the manned and cargo craft Stratolaunch will eventually send to orbit or even the International Space Station, Beames said. Musk’s SpaceX, an initial partner, is no longer associated with the venture. The rocket produced by Orbital ATK Inc., which replaced SpaceX, will probably be smaller than the medium-lift vehicle with a 6,000 kilogram (13,000-pound) payload that Stratolaunch had initially planned, Beames said. “I think it’s more likely we’ll be targeting a smaller payload class,” Beames said. “We’re not announcing anything on that yet.”

Allen’s company, Vulcan Aerospace, is also demanding that ULA change the name of its new Vulcan rocket, just revealed yesterday.

ULA has dubbed its next generation rocket Vulcan

ULA has announced its plans for replacing the Delta and Atlas 5 rockets, dubbing its new rocket Vulcan.

They plan to develop Vulcan’s first stage first and use it initially on Atlas 5 rockets so they can replace the Atlas 5 Russian engines as soon as possible. Also, they plan to recover the Vulcan rocket’s engines by having them separate from the booster after use and then get captured in a mid-air before hitting the ground. (See the graphic at the link to see a launch profile.)

In watching the press conference, ULA officials made it very clear that they are focusing a lot of their effort on lowering the cost of the rocket.

“Vulcan” and “Cerberus” win the poll to name Pluto’s two unnamed moons.

“Vulcan” and “Cerberus” win the poll to name Pluto’s two unnamed moons. Key quote:

Vulcan was a late addition to the Pluto moon name contenders, and pulled into the lead after Shatner, building on his Capt. James T. Kirk persona, plugged the name on Twitter. Vulcan, the home planet of Kirk’s alien-human hybrid first officer Spock, is not just a fictional world in the Star Trek universe. It is also the name of the god of fire in Roman mythology, and officials at SETI added the sci-fi favorite to the ballot for that reason.

William Shatner proposes naming Pluto’s two unnamed moons Romulus and Vulcan.

William Shatner proposes naming Pluto’s two unnamed moons Romulus and Vulcan.

Astronomers running the Pluto moon naming campaign accepted Vulcan, adding it to the list a day after Shatner suggested it, but Romulus didn’t make the cut. “Mr. Shatner’s second suggestion, Romulus, has a bit of a problem because it is already the name of a moon,” Mark Showalter, an astronomer involved with the competition, wrote in a blog on the Pluto Rocks website on Tuesday. “Romulus, along with his brother Remus, are the names of the moons of the asteroid 87 Silvia. They were discovered by a team led by my good colleague Franck Marchis, now a senior scientist at the SETI Institute.”

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