SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s hat is safe after ULA Vulcan rocket launch slips to 2023

Even with several handicaps in its favor, a recent batch of military launch contractors suggest that ULA's Vulcan rocket will never be able to compete commercially with SpaceX's Falcon 9. (ULA/SpaceX)

In the latest unfortunate development for SpaceX competitor United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan Centaur rocket, it looks like CEO Elon Musk may have been right all along when he forecast major delays more than three years ago.

In February 2018, even before SpaceX had flown Falcon Heavy for the first time, detractors with axes to grind were already busy attempting to downplay the rocket’s capabilities. On February 6th, Falcon Heavy lifted off for the first time, launching a several-ton Tesla Roadster car into interplanetary space and marking the first debut of a super heavy-lift rocket since the 1980s. That successful launch also meant that ULA’s last bastion of competitive advantage – the Delta IV Heavy rocket, fittingly by way of monopoly – was no longer alone.

Indeed, mere months after its near-flawless debut, Falcon Heavy had already secured its first operational US military launch contract. Delta IV Heavy, on the other hand, had already been preparing for retirement as part of ULA’s plan to replace two complex rockets (Delta and Atlas) with Vulcan.

Musk mercilessly took to task ULA’s heavy-lift rocket when commenters brought it up, noting that Falcon Heavy is largely comparable in a partially-reusable configuration but completely outclasses Delta IV Heavy – while still being dramatically cheaper – if all boosters are expended. The SpaceX CEO estimated that Delta IV Heavy launches would cost ULA significantly more than $400M after the company had effectively announced the end of Delta IV Medium production, though ULA CEO Tory Bruno still claimed a launch price of ~$350M.

In response to a reply noting that ULA’s plan was to replace Atlas V and Delta IV with Vulcan Centaur for launches “after 2020,” Musk pulled no punches, stating that he would “seriously eat [his] hat with a side of mustard if [Vulcan] flies a national security spacecraft before 2023.” At the time, ULA’s CEO did not exactly seem to share Musk’s shocking appraisal of the situation, which was out of left field even for major SpaceX proponents.

At the time, ULA’s party line touted Vulcan Centaur lifting off for the first time in late 2019 – the very next year. Ironically, weeks after Musk threw down his hat-eating gauntlet, ULA announced that Vulcan’s first launch had slipped to “mid-2020” – with a second flight later the same year – to give the company time to move straight to a larger upper stage originally meant to debut later on. Six months later, ULA announced yet another delay for Vulcan, this time pushing the rocket’s launch debut from mid-2020 to no earlier than (NET) April 2021.

Three years later, April 2021 has come and gone and ULA’s latest public Vulcan launch target is now “late 2021,” though that is all but guaranteed to slip into early 2022. In the latest (not-so-) shocking development for ULA’s next-generation rocket, the company has now requested and received permission from the US military to swap out Vulcan for an Atlas V rocket on what would have been the vehicle’s first military launch.

Exercising a contract loophole that had to have been explicitly designed to give ULA – and ULA alone – the option to fall back on its Atlas V or Delta IV rockets if Vulcan were to experience major delays, Atlas V will now take over the ULA’s USSF-51 mission. As a result, Vulcan Centaur’s first dedicated ‘national security’ launch is now officially scheduled no earlier than 2023, saving Elon Musk from having to eat his hat.

As of May 2021, ULA has now replaced one Vulcan launch with an Atlas V and inexplicably closed nine Atlas V launch contracts with Starlink competitor Amazon, bringing into question whether the company is ever actually going to simplify its rocket production lines. Given that ULA no longer appears to be planning on reusing parts of Vulcan, the only possible way Vulcan will end up more affordable than the rockets its replacing is if it quickly becomes the only rocket ULA produces, which was originally the plan. With ULA now apparently going out of its way to sell Atlas V commercially instead of Vulcan Centaur, it’s difficult to argue that the company has any interest at all in lowering the cost of access to space or offering SpaceX serious competition outside of lobbying and greasing the hinges of revolving doors.

Eric Ralph: Eric Ralph is Teslarati's senior spaceflight reporter and has been covering the industry in some capacity for almost half a decade, largely spurred in 2016 by a trip to Mexico to watch Elon Musk reveal SpaceX's plans for Mars in person. Aside from spreading interest and excitement about spaceflight far and wide, his primary goal is to cover humanity's ongoing efforts to expand beyond Earth to the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere.
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