End of an Era
The Spacenews section of Space.com had a story today about NASA's phasing out of Delta II launch vehicle. The Delta II has a long and illustrious career launching many of NASA's robotic spacecraft program. It seems that within the last 10 years, almost every NASA unmanned launch video featured a Delta II of one configuration or another lofting a spacecraft towards Mars or an asteroid. Now, according to the article, the Delta II is just getting to be too darn expensive. When Mars Pathfinder was launched, it's Delta II cost something around $50 million. New Delta II launches are slated to cost $65+ million. Apparently this is just too much, so NASA has decided to switch to the Air Force approved Delta IV and Atlas V EELVs.
Strangely enough, the new launch vehicles offer nothing as far as cost savings are concerned. Instead, the minimum vehicle cost for either family ends up costing about $138 million, around twice as much as the old Delta IIs. Meanwhile, SpaceX continues their efforts to produce the Falcon 9(~$25 million) and Falcon 9 Heavy(~$55 million) vehicles, which would seem to be a far more cost effective solution.
The other possibility is to avoid change entirely and keep buying Delta IIs. The Russians seem quite satisfied to keep recycling 1960s vintage Soyuz and Proton launch vehicles. Vehicles who's development costs have been recouped a hundred times over. Maybe we could learn something from their example.