New launch vehicles face schedule pressure

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PARIS — Executives of two launch companies insisted their vehicles will be ready for their inaugural flights in 2022 while a third acknowledged their new vehicle’s first flight will likely slip beyond the end of next year.

During a panel discussion at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week here Dec. 13, Jarrett Jones, senior vice president for the New Glenn launch vehicle program at Blue Origin, backed away from an earlier schedule that called for that launch in the fourth quarter of 2022.

After losing a U.S. Space Force launch competition in 2020 to SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin refocused its efforts to meet the needs of commercial customers, he said. “Yes, we have a target to launch, but we will launch when we’re ready and we are aligned with our customers.”

The company is working on various qualification efforts, including tests of a payload fairing at NASA’s Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station. The first stage is slated to complete qualification in early 2022, followed by the upper stage in the middle of the year. The company is building first flight hardware in parallel, which Jarrett acknowledged was a risk “but it’s a risk we’re betting on because of the design.”

“My expectation is that qualification will be completed next year and that we will have a rocket in build, if not built, by the end of the year, ready for launch,” he said.

A key factor in that schedule is the delivery of the seven BE-4 engines that power the first stage. “I’m pretty bullish on the BE-4 engines,” he said, citing good progress in recent testing. “The expectation is that we’ll get those towards the second half of 2022, and then we’re going to need three months for integration.”

The BE-4 schedule is also a factor for ULA, whose Vulcan Centaur uses two BE-4 engines in its first stage. ULA had hoped to get the first flight engines before the end of this year, but Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of the company, said Dec. 3 that those engines would not arrive until after the first of the year.

“The Blue team is making great progress and we do expect to receive those engines some time in the first quarter of this coming year,” said Mark Peller, vice president of major development at ULA. “That puts us on a good pace to get the integrated rocket down to the launch site and supporting an inaugural launch for Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander next year.”

Peller appeared to deny a report, published by Ars Technica Dec. 13, that stated that the delivery of the engines had slipped to at least April 2022 and threatened to delay that first launch to 2023.

“Absolutely not 2023,” he said when asked if early 2023 was a likely date for the first launch. “We have a plan that will support a flight in mid-2022.”

Arianespace is pressing ahead with plans for the first flight of the Ariane 6 in 2022. Stéphane Israël, chief executive of Arianespace, said that launch was scheduled for the “second part” of 2022, but added it was too early to give a more specific launch date.

The schedule for Ariane 6 is critical since the existing Ariane 5 is nearing retirement. Israël said that, after the Dec. 22 launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, there will be five more Ariane 5 launches left, which he predicted will go through the end of 2022 or early 2023. “There will be limited overlap between Ariane 6 and Ariane 5,” he said.

Further delays in Ariane 6, though, could turn that limited overlap into a gap, but Israël was confident that would not happen. “There will be no delay in Ariane 6 because we are now in the very last mile leading to the launch,” he said, such as a hotfire test scheduled for early next year.

However, that first launch, previously scheduled for the second quarter of 2022, has slipped to at least the third quarter, according to a European Space Agency schedule of projected highlights in 2022 released Dec. 7.

That introduction of several new vehicles creates challenges for commercial customers, said Tiphaine Louradour, president of International Launch Services (ILS). “You have three flight-proven launch vehicles that are available” at the heavy end of the market today, she said: Falcon, Proton and Soyuz. All the remaining Atlas 5 and Ariane 5 launches have been sold, while Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is also transitioning from the H-2 to the new H3.

That choice could be further reduced if geopolitical issues, such as responses to a Russian invasion of Ukraine, made Proton and Soyuz — marketed by ILS — inaccessible to Western customers, leaving them only the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. “If I was a commercial satellite operator, I’d be very concerned, and we are hearing those concerns,” she said.