ULA needs to launch a second Vulcan rocket

A great example of this this week is United Launch Alliance’s Cert-2 mission.

If you’re into space, hearing CEO Torey Bruno announce that United Launch Alliance is going to take the plunge and launch Cert-2 without a customer payload is a crazy announcement. Aren’t rockets expensive after all? Don’t rockets often wait months or even years for a spacecraft to be ready for launch? Why do we send it into space? A $100 million empty Vulcan rocket into orbit for no one to pay for, especially if ULA has sold over 70 launches to customers?

The simple answer is that Cert-2 has a client: the Pentagon. But let’s unpack that.

National security tasks are Most profitable launch contractswith billions of dollars a year in rocket orders. Some are low-cost demonstration missions, but the vast majority are expensive, top-secret satellites that the Pentagon doesn’t want anyone to fly. Enter the National Security Space Launch Program (NSSL).

ULA and SpaceX are already in the NSSL program, but any time they bring a new rocket to market, the Space Force requires that specific order. The rocket was successfully launched before it was certified for the NSSL mission. Hence the name of the second Vulcan mission, Cert-2. It was first launched in January.which was the first launch towards martyrdom.

“What the Space Force is looking forward to seeing with Cert-2 is another successful flight just like Cert-1,” Bruno said during a press conference on Wednesday.

After Cert-2, ULA will send the Space Force “gigabytes of data for all the hardware on every part of the rocket,” Bruno said, and assuming they “don’t find any surprises,” it will be possible to start launching NSSL missions on Vulcan.

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ULA had planned to fly Sierra Space’s inaugural Dream Chaser cargo plane on Cert-2, but Bruno said the latter’s CEO Tom Weiss “felt he was putting too much risk in the schedule against my needs.” Dream Chaser is stepping aside to be replaced by an “inert payload,” also known as a “block simulator” (think a big block of concrete and metal), so that Cert-2 can be launched by September.

Why the rush?

Well, the Pentagon has already purchased a full complement of Vulcan launches, and expects to fly two of those missions — USSF-106 and USSF-87 — before the end of the year. Indeed, Frank Calvelli, the Air Force’s top brass, lobbied Bruno and the ULA Message sent last month The missile company’s owners, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, expressed concern “over Vulcan delays.” The Air Force also announced Imposing a fine on ULAfor an undisclosed amount, due to Vulcan delays.

One question mark that had hung over the next three Vulcan missions has been largely settled at least: Blue Origin’s ability to deliver the BE-4 engines for the rockets. The company has delivered to ULA the six engines needed for the three launches, and Bruno noted that he has “much more confidence” in that relationship. That wasn’t the case a year ago, Bruno said, noting that his company had “a lot of concerns” about securing the engines ULA needed. That was when Blue Origin had BE-4 engine explodes during acceptance test – Engine intended for launching Cert-2.

Timely delivery of the BE-4 engines becomes increasingly important next year, as Bruno expects ULA to conduct 20 launches in 2025, half on Atlas V rockets and the other half using Vulcan. The company has a total of 16 Atlas V rockets remaining for launch, before it fully invests in Vulcan.

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The Pentagon is ULA’s most important customer. So, while the military may not be paying for Cert-2 directly, the backlog of orders for NSSL is why ULA is willing to pay out-of-pocket costs to launch the mission.

Oh, and there’s another open question about The long-rumoured ULA sale. I thought, as others did, that Vulcan’s successful debut earlier this year would seal the deal. Plus Jeff Bezos Large group of stock sales Earlier this year, Blue Origin looked like the likely winner. I’m speculating, but whoever wants to buy ULA might wait until after Cert-2 – or perhaps the friendlier FTC if there’s a change in the White House in November.

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