Why It Matters: Competition in business rockets.
In recent years, the business of launching spacecraft and astronauts into orbit has been dominated by SpaceX, the rocket company started and run by Elon Musk. SpaceX’s lower prices and prolific launch rates have been a boon to satellite operators, NASA and the US Space Force. But those customers, especially the Space Force, don’t want to depend on one company.
The Space Force is requiring United Launch Alliance to launch two Vulcan missions before it can be confident about using the rocket for spy satellites and other national security payloads. The longer the company takes to complete the first two missions, the longer it will have to wait for that certification.
Background: A year of transition.
A decade ago, United Launch Alliance had a monopoly on national security launches, with its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which had nearly flawless flight rockets. But it has almost no commercial customers, because rockets are expensive.
After SpaceX sued, the military opened the door for SpaceX rockets to be certified for national security missions. Some in Congress, notably John McCain, the Arizona senator, are increasingly questioning how the American military can rely on the Atlas V since its booster stage is powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
So far this year, United Launch Alliance has launched just one rocket, a Delta IV, compared to nearly 50 launched by SpaceX.
In 2014, ULA announced the development of the Vulcan to succeed the Atlas V and Delta IV. Older rockets are no longer produced, and work on the Vulcan is still under construction.
For Vulcan, instead of relying on Russian engines, ULA turned to Blue Origin, the company started by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Blue Origin’s BE-4 engine will power the Vulcan booster, as well as Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, which is still under development.
While the Blue Origin rocket engine used for the first Vulcan rocket passed test firings, an engine slated to be used for the second mission exploded during a recent test, CNBC reported on Wednesday. Mr. Bruno, the CEO, said that was unlikely to cause any further delays to the flight schedule.
“It was unexpected,” Mr. Bruno said. “This is not the last. And there will be other parts on the rocket that will also fail the acceptance test.
What’s Next: New spacecraft and a new mission to the moon.
Vulcan’s first mission will carry a commercial lunar lander built by Astrobotic Technology of Pittsburgh, two demonstration satellites for Amazon for its planned Kuiper satellite internet network and the ashes of people who want to be buried in space as part of the service. memorial provided by a company named Celestis.
Vulcan’s second launch was to take the Dream Chaser, a space plane being built by Sierra Space of Boulder, Colo., to orbit on a test flight. The current version of the Dream Chaser will not carry people, but will instead be used to transport cargo to and from the International Space Station.
If the first two flights are successful, the Space Force will analyze the data to validate the Vulcan rocket, and could launch the first national security mission in the second quarter of next year.
Mr. Bruno said United Launch Alliance aims to launch 25 missions by 2025, and the mix will be half government missions and half commercial customers. “It’s a more balanced portfolio,” Mr. Bruno said. “It increases our launch rate.”