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May 29, 2024

ULA’s Vulcan Rocket Set for Maiden Flight as Bezos Blue Origin Hovers in Background

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Jan 5, 2024

United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket is poised for its long-awaited first launch on January 8th from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. After years of development, the rocket will finally take flight on a mission to deliver a robotic lunar lander to the Moon for NASA. However, the debut comes amidst uncertainty over ULA’s future, with billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin reportedly interested in a full or partial purchase of the company.

Lead-up to Vulcan’s Inaugural Launch

ULA has been working on the Vulcan Centaur rocket for over 5 years to phase out its reliable but expensive Atlas and Delta rockets. Vulcan is key to the company’s plans to remain competitive against rival SpaceX and its low-cost reusable Falcon 9 rockets.

The maiden flight, designated Vulcan Centaur 2 (VAC2), will carry the Peregrine lunar lander built by Pittsburgh company Astrobotic. The launch is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative to deliver science payloads to the Moon using privately built landers.

Over 11,000 pounds of cargo will ride aboard Peregrine, including scientific instruments, technology demonstrations, a rover, and mementos gathered from the public by Astrobotic. The lander will target Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon, for an arrival in March.

Payload Provider Purpose
Laser Retroreflector Array NASA Allows precise laser rangefinding from Earth
MARCO POLO Mass Spectrometer NASA Measures lunar exosphere composition
REGOLITH X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer NASA Determines surface elemental abundances
MoonRanger Lunar Rover Astrobotic Scouts terrain and demonstrates autonomous navigation

Vulcan Centaur 2 has undergone extensive testing ahead of launch day. An end-to-end countdown rehearsal on January 3rd verified flight procedures, and a Launch Readiness Review on January 4th gave the “go” for launch. The rocket was erected on the pad at Space Launch Complex 41, taking the place of ULA’s retiring Atlas V rocket.

All systems appear ready for ULA’s target liftoff time of 1:04 PM EST on January 8th at the opening of a 2-hour launch window. The weather forecast currently predicts an 80% chance of favorable conditions.

Vulcan Launch Marks a New Chapter for ULA

The launch of Vulcan Centaur will usher in a new chapter for ULA and the future of the US launch industry. ULA formed in 2006 as a 50-50 joint venture between aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin as the go-to provider for US national security launches. Its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets have compiled a perfect success record of over 145 missions since their debuts in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

However, the reliable but expensive Atlas V and Delta IV were designed primarily with performance and precision in mind to meet unique national security launch requirements. ULA has faced growing pressure in recent years from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket which reshaped market expectations on launch costs.

Vulcan Centaur aims to balance performance, precision, affordability, and reusability – made possible largely by Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines. The liquefied natural gas engines replace the Russian-sourced RD-180 engines used on Atlas V.

“Vulcan Centaur leverages the proven success of our rockets while incorporating innovations to significantly increase performance and decrease cost,” said Tory Bruno, President and CEO of ULA. “We are thrilled to serve the national security capabilities our country depends on and enable science missions that expand knowledge.”

Unlike the partially reusable Falcon 9 though, Vulcan Centaur will still not reuse the most expensive part of the rocket – its first stage engines. However, ULA intends to eventually develop SMART reuse capability to capture the booster after launch.

Behind the Scenes: Blue Origin Bids for ULA as Vulcan Readies for Launch

Even with the promise of Vulcan Centaur, United Launch Alliance’s continued dominance in the launch market is uncertain. Privately held launch startup Blue Origin, also owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is reportedly interested in buying out ULA.

Bloomberg first broke the news that Blue Origin recently submitted an offer to Boeing and Lockheed Martin showing interest in a full buyout of ULA. A partial sale involving just certain ULA assets is also reportedly on the table. ULA has declined to comment publicly on any sale talks.

Blue Origin sees strategic value in ULA’s strong track record, manufacturing infrastructure, and personnel. While its privately developed New Glenn rocket intends to compete with SpaceX for commercial satellite launches, ULA would give Blue Origin a foothold in lucrative national security launch contracts. ULA also has an established customer base and relationships that would aid New Glenn.

However, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have not seriously entertained any buyout offers yet as Vulcan Centaur prepares for its long-awaited first flight on January 8th.

Bloomberg space industry analyst Jonathan Ruhe says ULA likely wants to first prove Vulcan’s capabilities before considering any sale:

“The inaugural launch of the Vulcan Centaur rocket could be pivotal for United Launch Alliance as it looks to the future. While the company faces uncertainty amid buyout talks, successfully demonstrating Vulcan’s performance may place ULA in a stronger negotiating position.”

Nonetheless, a cloud of uncertainty hangs over ULA’s workforce as rumors swirl. Tory Bruno reportedly addressed employees in an internal meeting, vowing to communicate any concrete plans if a potential Blue Origin buyout materializes.

For now, focus remains on the maiden launch of Vulcan Centaur to open 2024 before any major changes happen behind the scenes.

What Comes Next After Vulcan’s Inaugural Flight

Assuming a successful first flight, ULA will quickly push forward preparing Vulcan Centaur rockets for 6 additional launches booked this year. The early Vulcan manifest is devoted exclusively to US military and civilian government missions, starting with the NASA CLPS delivery.

Later Vulcan flights will carry crucial national security payloads like missile warning, protected communications, and intelligence satellites. These include Space Development Agency satellites starting as early as June and the USSF-52 multi-payload mission for the Space Force scheduled for December 2024.

  • Vulcan Centaur 2: Peregrine Lunar Lander for NASA CLPS
  • Vulcan Centaur 3: USSF-67 National Security Payload
  • Vulcan Centaur 4 & 5: Back-to-back Space Development Agency launches
  • Vulcan Centaur 6: USSF-52 National Security Payload

At the same time, ULA will be working to certify Vulcan to fly the most expensive US national security assets. Vulcan must go through up to 6 certification flights before it can compete for launching the NRO’s billion-dollar spy satellites, GPS IIIFs for the Space Force, or the future B-21 Raider stealth bomber.

ULA also hopes to secure the lucrative Phase 2 National Security Space Launch contracts by 2025. ULA split about 60% of the Phase 1 contracts awarded in 2020 with rival SpaceX taking 40% as the Air Force tapped two providers rather than sole sourcing ULA.

Competition will be even tougher in Phase 2 though as Blue Origin expects New Glenn to come online. Northrop Grumman’s OmegA rocket and Japan’s H3 vehicle may also vie for future national security launch contracts.

For ULA’sVulcan Centaur, a smooth first flight will kickstart validating its future as America’s new reliable rocket before ownership changes shape the company behind the scenes. All eyes turn to Cape Canaveral as decades of Atlas V and Delta IV launches give way to the new Vulcan era blasting off on January 8th.

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AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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