Why It Matters: Competition in the rocket business.
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 speed have been a boon to satellite operators, NASA and the US Space Force. But those customers, especially the Space Force, don’t want to rely on one company.
The Space Force requires the United Launch Alliance to launch two Vulcan missions before it is confident of using the rocket for spy satellites and other national security payloads. The longer it takes the company to complete the first two missions, the longer it will have to wait for that certification.
Background: Year of transition.
A decade ago, United Launch Alliance had a monopoly on national security launches, using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which had nearly perfect flight characteristics. But it had almost no commercial customers, because the rockets were expensive.
After SpaceX sued, the military opened the door to certifying SpaceX’s rockets for national security missions. Some in Congress, notably John McCain, the Arizona senator, increasingly questioned how the US military could rely on the Atlas V since its booster stage was powered by Russian-built RD-180 engines.
So far this year, the 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 the Delta IV. The older rockets are no longer in production, and work on the Vulcan continues in preparation.
For the 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 engines will power the Vulcan booster, as well as Blue Origin’s own New Glenn rocket, which is still in development.
While the Blue Origin rocket engines used for the first Vulcan rocket passed test firings, an engine planned to be used for the second mission exploded during recent testing, CNBC reported Wednesday. Mr. Bruno, the CEO, said this was unlikely to cause additional delays to the flight schedule.
“This is not unexpected,” said Mr. Bruno. “It won’t be the last. And there will be other components on the rocket that also fail acceptance tests.”
What’s next: A new spacecraft and a new mission to the moon.
The first Vulcan 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 wanted to be buried in space as part of a funeral service provided by a company called Celestis.
The second Vulcan launch is to carry Dream Chaser, a spaceplane under development by Sierra Space of Boulder, Colo., to orbit during a test flight. The current version of Dream Chaser will not carry people, but will instead be used to take cargo to and from the International Space Station.
If the first two flights are successful, the Space Force will review the data to certify the Vulcan rocket, and the first national security mission could launch as soon as the second quarter of next year.
Mr. Bruno said the United Launch Alliance aims to launch 25 missions in 2025, and that the mix will be half government missions and half commercial customers. “It’s a much more balanced portfolio,” Mr. Bruno said. “It quadruples our launch rate.”