Why it matters: Competition in the missile industry.
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 low prices and prolific launch rate have been a boon for satellite operators, NASA and the US Space Force. But those customers, especially the Space Force, don’t want to be dependent on one company.
The Space Force requires United Launch Alliance to launch two Vulcan missions before it can be confident the missile will be used for spy satellites and other national security payloads. The longer it takes a company to complete the first two tasks, the longer this certification will have to wait.
Background: A year of transformation.
A decade ago, the United Launch Alliance had a monopoly on national security launches, using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets, which had near-flawless flying missiles. But she had almost no commercial customers, because the rockets were very expensive.
After a lawsuit was filed against SpaceX, the military opened the door to certifying SpaceX rockets for national security missions. Some in Congress, notably Arizona Sen. John McCain, increasingly questioned how the U.S. military could rely on the Atlas V because the booster stage was powered by Russian-made RD-180 engines.
So far this year, the United Launch Alliance has launched just one rocket, the Delta IV, compared to roughly 50 launched by SpaceX.
In 2014, ULA announced the development of Vulcan to replace Atlas V and Delta IV. Older rockets are no longer being built, and work on Vulcan is still a work in progress.
For Vulcan, rather than relying on Russian engines, ULA has turned to Blue Origin, the company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines will power the Vulcan booster, as well as Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is still under development.
While the Blue Origin rocket engines used in the first Vulcan rocket passed firing tests, an engine that was to be used on the second mission exploded during the last test, CNBC reported on Wednesday. Mr Bruno, the CEO, said it was unlikely to cause any further delays to the flight schedule.
“It’s not unexpected,” said Mr. Bruno. “It won’t be the last. There will be other components on the rocket that also fail acceptance testing.”
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 satellites for Amazon’s display of the planned Kuiper space internet and the ashes of people who wanted to be buried in space as part of a memorial service provided by a company called Celestis.
The second Vulcan launch carried the Dream Chaser, a spaceplane under development by Sierra Space of Boulder, Colorado, into orbit for 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 review the data to certify the Vulcan rocket, and the first national security mission could be launched in the second quarter of next year.
Mr Bruno said the United Launch Alliance was aiming to launch 25 missions in 2025, and that the mix would be half government missions and half commercial customers. “It’s a more balanced portfolio,” said Mr. Bruno. “It quadruples our launch rate.”