Can it get its mojo back?

I think that partially, even largely depends on whether it can get a better owner than the current ones.

[Update a while later]

I have more thoughts over at X.

[This is a good history from @SciGuySpace, but there’s a word missing in it: Starship. Tory’s problem is that he thinks that he’s competing against Falcon, but Elon is going to obsolesce Falcon ASAP. How will Vulcan or New Glenn compete against a fully reusable heavy lifter?

The thing about Elon is that he never faces the Innovator’s Dilemma. His first instinct is to obsolesce his own product line before a competitor can. Anyone who wants to seriously compete against SpaceX has to compete against his future plans, not his current business.

If space launch was just a business for Elon, he’d be as complacent as any other businessman in his position, but it’s not a business; it’s a passion, and he wants to get thousands of people to Mars. So he’s going to continue to out-innovate the competition.

Imagine a world in which SH/SS is flying daily (or more often) on regularly scheduled trips to ELEO at a cost of tens of dollars a pound. Propellant would be cheap enough to deliver a payload to anywhere in cislunar space for much less than the cost of a traditional launch. That is what ULA and BO are going to have to compete with if they want to stay in the launch business.

I know, “But there’s not enough demand for that level of launch activity!” Believe me, at those prices, we will finally see the kind of price-demand elasticity that will drive it through the roof. People will be doing things dreamt of for decades, held back only by launch costs.

So good luck to ULA (and BO) on their upcoming maiden flights this year, but I don’t predict a long future for them. Not to mention SLS… 

I feel like I should write a book about this.

[Monday-morning update]

ULA had a successful maiden flight, but there’s an anomaly with Peregrine.


35 thoughts on “ULA”

    1. From what I’ve read, Blue Origin has a lot of the people who were part of the problem in the first place.
      So they may not be able to fix it if they do take over.

  1. Whoever ends up with ULA should just focus on Centaur and make it launcher neutral. Centaurs launched by Super Heavies. Develop a fleet of tugs and multipurpose vehicles.

    1. Well Boing! would have none of that! Rhymes too much with the “d-word”. Why would you need a teeny, tiny tugboat when you have a titanic SLS to sell?*

      *adjectives may not be random.

      Speaking of Boing! I’m wondering if in the next gen Vulcan Max configuration if fairing blowout panels will be installed to eject upper atmosphere payloads during ascent? /sarc

    2. SpaceX not allowed, but if it were…

      Stretch Vulcan, 5x Raptor 3 would fit in engine bay. Then add grid fins, landing legs and it’s a methane Falcon. 3x cores is methane Vulcan Heavy, optimized for BLEO. Put EUS + Orion on top… Naaah.

  2. We will see…….if the BE4 will make it. I wish them well, since competition is a good thing.

    But you’re right: They are the dog chasing the car. Once they get there? Now what?

  3. There was not enough demand for F9 to fly on a weekly basis (or even monthly) a few years back.
    Now it’s flying twice weekly with the cadence still increasing.
    People will wail that 2/3 of the launches ‘do not count’ since they are Starlink launches, and Starlink is owned by SpaceX. This is wrong – the Starlink product is making them increasingly huge amounts of money, and would simply not be possible without the new F9 cadence.

  4. What is interesting to me is that ULA’s proposed partial recovery method for Vulcan has yet to be tested. And can’t be tested until Vulcan is flying. How quickly we’ve forgotten all those Grasshoppers test flights over McCallum Texas. It wasn’t as if F9 reusable first stages sprang out of nothing. ULA expects to amortize the cost of developing a partially reusable booster using actual flights to cover its cost of R&D since success or failure of recovery is solely on ULA, the customer has already paid for access to orbit, as long as they get it. But ULA has far from demonstrated this capability, whereas SpaceX has been doing this since 2015 now. What if ULA discovers they can’t? Or given the fact that the Vulcan first stage always has to be rebuilt using only the recovered engines which get a recycled dunking in sea water? Or have to be snatched in mid air otherwise? That they can’t do it economically? The full feasibility of this scheme cost wise is not a clear slam dunk and what they might end up with eventually, if ULA gives up on the idea, is a methane fueled EELV. It’s not even clear it could be competitive even if there were NEVER a Starship/SH on the horizon. It’s easy not to realize just how far in front SpaceX is. As Rand points out it is a “vision thing”. Not a business model. Rand, again this is great fodder for a new book.

    1. SpaceX has demonstrated that it can be done, therefore it can be done again.
      Whether ULA can do it is far less demonstrable. I think it unlikely without an enormous shakeup at least (and possibly bankruptcy).

      It can’t be done while the finance guys run the company. Those guys are fine for making soda pop, where the company’s edge is better marketing. But for developing anything that’s actually new (as opposed to the advertised “new and improved”), they’re hopeless.

    2. Back about 20 years ago, I proposed an SDV with a recoverable boat tail, including heat shield. parachutes, and airbags. I pictured recovery in the Australian desert when possible, or sea recovery otherwise, since the airbags would float. It cost payload, but like STS itself, you got everything back except the ET. Its side mounted second stage was based on the Ariane 5 core. Turns out it would support a 2-launch lunar landing scenario (1 with CM, 1 with LM). I think at least 1 version of the essay was in Spaceflight.

  5. Kudos to Burger for pointing out how the current parent companies are to a degree parasitic upon ULA. Which wouldn’t even have existed had not the USAF been paranoid about losing the Delta rocket to a sole sourced Atlas with Russian engines. Good history there.

  6. I watched the new Dave Chapelle special, “Dreamer”. At the end, he explains what he means by it. One thing that comes across is that dreamers make mistakes, but because they are what they are, dreamers; they succeed.

    The people who say this:
    “But there’s not enough demand for that level of launch activity!”
    are not dreamers.

      1. With the right audience in mind when writing it, you could sell the book but depending on what you want to say, the message may mean more to your posterity than the money.

  7. Hit the nail on the head there. No matter how far Vulcan can go to compete with Falcon, it will actually be competing with Starship.

    It’s a real shame, I think without all the constraints or a ‘quick, cheap and dirty solution, starting several years back,Tory could be competitive with the Starship.

  8. People will be doing things dreamt of for decades, held back only by launch costs.

    Like thousands of solar powered, moon rovers, driven by jr/sr high schoolers. Who’ll someday have the odd CV that declares they were driving around on the moon in science class years before they could legally drive on Earth.

  9. “I know, “But there’s not enough demand for that level of launch activity!” Believe me, at those prices, we will finally see the kind of price-demand elasticity that will drive it through the roof. People will be doing things dreamt of for decades, held back only by launch costs.”

    Demand is infinite.

  10. “If ULA can get the rocket flying safely and at a high cadence—which is a big challenge, but not an insurmountable one—then Vulcan has a bright future.”

    Safely? Safely? WTF? Does he mean “reliably”, i.e. “safely” for the payload? Or that this new rocket, like every other new rocket, has flown enough times without wiping out millions of people via any of the ridiculous Rube Goldberg “failure modes” (that no rocket has ever exhibited) fever dreamed up by the “range” “safety” mafia?

    Come on, Eric. You’re a very good space journalist. Has there ever been an unsafe U.S. space launch vehicle? Scratch that: could there ever be an unsafe U.S. space launch vehicle? You evidently haven’t been paying attention…

    1. I’ve always assumed “reliably” when it comes to Vulcan. I’m unaware of any plans to launch Orion atop it or if the numbers even work. I suppose there is Starliner however.

    2. We know the safest way to do space flight is not to fly a crew. Vulcan will be safe if it flies. It is only a threat to engineers testing engines.

  11. So Vulcan worked and Peregrine failed. I guess the thing to see next is if Blue can deliver 19 more BE-4s, and if all of them work. In context, the first two Starship launches used 78 Raptors.67 of those are known to have worked throughout the ascent phase, 5 failed during same, and 6 were lost pre-ignition. Discounting those 6, that’s 61/72 or just under 85% success rate (assuming I counted on my toes right). Of course, all the failed engines were on IFT-1. We shall see!

  12. “We do not expect every launch and landing to be successful.”

    Speak for yourself, Kemosabe.

  13. If built and flown, New Glenn with a reusable Jarvis upper stage may be able to compete with Starship. There are plenty of people who insist Starship is far too big, and Musk himself noted that 7 meters may have been a better choice than 9 (the largest that could be built in today’s industrial landscape).

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