ULA’s Vulcan Moves Closer to First Flight

ULA’s Vulcan Moves Closer to First Flight

The United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket is getting closer to its first launch. Originally planned for May 4, the date for the Cert-1 mission slipped because of an upper stage accident during testing, but today ULA rolled the rocket out to the launch pad for pre-launch tests. Vulcan is ULA’s future, replacing the existing Atlas V and Delta IV rockets over the next several years. The first launch also is Astrobotic’s ride to the Moon, delivering the Peregrine lander with NASA and other payloads to the lunar surface.

Vulcan will use a new version of the venerable Centaur upper stage, Centaur 5. During a test of a Centaur 5 structural test article at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on March 29, a hydrogen leak caused a fire and explosion. ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno shared the news via Twitter.

Bruno has been posting occasional updates over the past several weeks including this video of what happened.

That was not the upper stage for the Cert-1 mission, but ULA needed to investigate before clearing Cert-1 for launch.

Today, the Cert-1 rocket rolled out from ULA’s Vertical Integration Facility (VIF) to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, FL for Flight Readiness Firing (FRF) tests.

A launch date hasn’t been set yet. Bruno tweeted on April 14 that it will be “June/July” at the earliest.

The date will depend in part on the results of the FRF tests. Another factor is that spacecraft headed to the Moon like Peregrine can only launch during certain times of the month.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander ready to be shipped to the launch site as soon as ULA is ready. Credit: Astrobotic

Cert-1’s name comes from the fact that it is the first of two certification flights required by the U.S. Space Force before using it to launch the most critical — and expensive — national security satellites.

Cert-1 will carry two Project Kuiper test satellites for Amazon’s satellite Internet constellation, cremated remains in 150 capsules that will be sent into deep space for Celestis, and Peregrine.

Peregrine and Astrobotic’s larger lunar lander, Griffin, are being developed through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, a public-private partnership. NASA provides science and technology payloads and money, but the company develops and owns the lander and has to purchase the launch service. NASA expects the company to find other customers to close the business case.

NASA has CLPS contracts with several companies. Intuitive Machines is one of them and also plans to launch this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9.  The two companies are in a bit of a race to see who goes first. Intuitive Machines said today they are targeting the third quarter of the year, which is July-September, a bit of slip from their earlier estimate of June.

Vulcan is a completely new rocket. The first stage is powered by Blue Origin’s BE-4 methane-liquid oxygen (methalox) engines. Blue Origin will use them for its own New Glenn rocket, which is still in development. Methalox has become a popular propellant in recent years although no methalox rocket has yet to reach orbit. SpaceX’s Starship was the most recent to try.

Vulcan will be phased into ULA’s launch manifest over the next several years. Two more Delta IV and 19 more Atlas V launches are on the books. ULA plans 25 Vulcan launches per year by 2025.

They have quite a list of orders already from government and commercial customers, including 38 for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, one of the mega-constellations of broadband satellites akin to SpaceX’s Starlink. Amazon also purchased nine Atlas V launches plus dozens from other launch services providers.

User Comments

SpacePolicyOnline.com has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.