ULA’s Vulcan Rolls Out to the Pad for Tests

ULA’s Vulcan Rolls Out to the Pad for Tests

The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) new Vulcan rocket rolled out to the launch pad today to begin tests. The first Vulcan launch is expected early next year, although its Blue Origin BE-4 engines are late. ULA President and CEO Tory Bruno said today he anticipated the delays and his schedule takes them into account.

Vulcan will replace ULA’s venerable Atlas V rocket. Powered by Russian RD-180 engines, Atlas V has a 100 percent success record, but after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Congress passed a law requiring ULA to end its reliance on Russian engines for national security space launches, the staple of Atlas V orders.

ULA soon signed a partnership agreement with Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin for its BE-4 engine, which at the time had been in development for three years. It uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and Liquified Natural Gas (LNG), a form of methane, as propellant, a novel combination.

Recent media reports have been critical of Blue Origin because the engines still are not ready, but Bruno downplayed those concerns during an appearance at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO, today. He insisted the pacing item for the first launch is not the engines, but the payload — Astrobotic’s robotic lunar lander. He is “super excited” about the BE-4, which is even better than expected.

I knew it would take them longer than they thought it would, so I planned on this taking a bit, much more time, and I was not wrong. They’re currently in pre-qualification testing right now. The rocket engine has had 1000s of seconds of test time… it’s performed great, more thrust than we expected, higher Isp than I thought I would get out of it. So we are very very happy with it. We started fabrication of the flight engines in parallel and then as pre-qual gets done … we’ll roll right into qual.  I hope to have engines before the end of the year, and that would support having a rocket available and waiting on that payload.

He is similarly enthusiastic about Astrobotic’s lander, Peregrine, which is part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) effort. Through CLPS, NASA buys services from companies that build small lunar landers. NASA provides only its own payloads and money. The companies own the landers, must pay for the launches, and are expected to find other customers to close the business case. Astrobotic was one of the first companies to win a CLPS task order for a launch this year, but it slipped to 2022.

Bruno is one of those other customers. It is a “really cool mission. … They sell payload modules, anybody could buy one” and “I bought one so I could send the names of all of my employees on that lander.”

Shortly after making those remarks, he tweeted it “Feels like a good day to roll a Vulcan out to the pad…” from the Spaceflight Processing Operations Center (SPOC) and that is just what they did.

The rocket’s core stage will undergo Pathfinder Tanking Tests (PTT) at Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It is outfitted with two development BE-4 engines that will be replaced by flight engines before launch. The tanking, or fueling, tests will validate launch pad infrastructure, evaluate countdown procedures, and train the launch team.

Like the Atlas V, Vulcan will use a Centaur upper stage and is referred to as Vulcan Centaur. ULA says it has “upwards of 30 orders” for launches already. Some are for the U.S. Space Force, which selected ULA and SpaceX for the Phase 2 National Security Space Launch (NSSL) contracts last year, beating out Blue Origin (which not only builds engines, but is developing the New Glenn orbital rocket in addition to its existing suborbital New Shepard) and Northrop Grumman.

ULA, a 50/50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, was the sole launch service provider for national security space missions for over a decade until SpaceX emerged as a competitor. For Phase 2 NSSL, ULA won 60 percent of the launch service contracts that will be awarded for FY2020-FY2024. SpaceX got the other 40 percent. The launches themselves will take place in FY2022-2027.

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