CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — United Launch Alliance's first Vulcan rocket rolled out of its hangar Friday for a 30-minute ride to a launch pad in Florida, finally moving to the launch pad after a decade of development and testing.
It was the first time anyone had seen the full-sized, 202-foot (61.6 m) Vulcan rocket in its complete form. Since ULA finished assembling the rocket last month, it has been placed inside the scaffolding of the company's vertical hangar at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.
On Friday, ULA's ground crew moved the Vulcan rocket and its mobile launch pad to the coastal launch pad. It was one of the last steps before the Vulcan rocket was set to launch on Monday at 2:18 a.m. EDT (07:18 UTC). On Sunday afternoon, ULA engineers will gather inside the control center at Cape Canaveral to oversee the 11-hour countdown, when the Vulcan rocket will be loaded with methane, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuel.
ULA has a 45-minute launch window for the mission to launch on Monday, and there is an 85% chance of good weather.
If the rocket does not lift off on Monday, ULA has backup launch opportunities on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. After that, the company will have to step down until January 23, a gap in launch availability constrained by the Vulcan rocket's payload path. A commercial robotic lunar lander, developed by a Pennsylvania company called Astrobotic, is the primary passenger on Vulcan's inaugural flight.
In the wild
This is a big moment for ULA, a 50-50 joint venture formed in 2006 through the merger of the launch divisions of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The Vulcan rocket, in every sense of the word, is the embodiment of the company's future, said Mark Beeler, vice president of Vulcan development at ULA. It will replace ULA's fleet of Atlas and Delta rockets, which date back to the early years of the Space Age.
“There was an opportunity to develop a new rocket that could do everything Atlas and Delta could do, but with greater performance, and taking advantage of the latest technology,” Beller said on Friday. “The system we have developed, and are about to fly, puts us in a position to have a very bright and prosperous future for many years to come.”
Facing stiff competition from SpaceX, which was still new to the launch business a decade ago, ULA officials decided they needed a new rocket that was cheaper to build and fly than the Atlas V and Delta IV. Ars traces Vulcan's history, a timeline that includes lawsuits, a change in company leadership, delays and setbacks, and, most recently, reports that Boeing and Lockheed Martin have put ULA up for sale.
ULA has sold dozens of Vulcan missions to the US Army and Amazon for Project Kuiper's broadband network. In the case of the military, the Pentagon wants to have at least two independent launch providers capable of ferrying national security satellites into orbit, so ULA has been able to rely on a steady system of government contracts.
Amazon has booked launches with almost every major Western launch company along with SpaceX, its rival in the broadband satellite business. This also secured ULA a significant piece of work for Amazon's $10 billion constellation of Kuiper satellites.
The Vulcan rocket “has already proven to be a very competitive product in the market, with an order book of more than 70 missions before first flight, which is unheard of,” Beller said. “So this is the future of our company, and we are off to a great start on a really strong trajectory with Vulcan.”
But it still needs to fly, and ULA is putting its record of 100 percent mission success on the line with a Vulcan test flight scheduled for Monday.
“We went through the qualification of the Vulcan rocket very carefully,” Beller said. “This spanned over several years and included rigorous testing of the main components, subsystems and elements of the rocket, as well as testing here at the launch site.” Extensive simulation using state-of-the-art tools to do everything we can to fly the missile in the simulation before we actually fly it.
“Many of the new systems flying on Vulcan have benefited from their introduction on Atlas and Delta in recent years. So many of the systems we fly here actually have a fair amount of flight experience under their belts.” I continued. “But… this is still the first time the vehicle has flown, and we will watch this very carefully and see what we learn from this. We are going into this with very high confidence. If there are any observations about the first flight, we will do that.” “We are ready to respond, deal with these issues, and quickly get back flying again.”
The new rocket's first stage is powered by two Blue Origin methane-fueled BE-4 engines. While they have been tested on the ground countless times, these engines have never flown before.
The Vulcan upper stage, called Centaur V, is an upgraded, twin-engine version of the single-engine upper stage that flies on the Atlas V rocket. The RL10 hydrogen-fueled engines in the Centaur upper stage are similar in design to those used on each of the Vulcan rockets. Atlas V and Delta IV, but Centaur V is much larger. One of Vulcan's upgraded upper stages exploded during a ground test last year, forcing ULA to postpone the rocket's maiden flight for several months while engineers beefed up Centaur's stainless-steel hydrogen tank.
This version of the Vulcan rocket is equipped with two solid-propellant boosters from Northrop Grumman. They are boosters with higher thrust than the rockets installed on previous ULA rockets. In the future, Vulcan rockets will come in variants with zero, two, four or six solid rocket boosters, allowing ULA to match the vehicle's lift capacity to each mission's requirements.
The most powerful version of Vulcan will outcompete the largest rocket in ULA's current fleet, the Delta IV Heavy. SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket can handle heavier payloads flying to low Earth orbit and has a lift capacity similar to higher-altitude orbits.
However, ULA's Vulcan will enter service as a fully expendable rocket. The company plans to introduce a gradual upgrade to recover and reuse the two BE-4 engines, although Beeler said Friday that it will take “a few years” to start reusing the engines.
According to ULA, the initial focus is to fully certify the Vulcan rocket for launching US military satellites later this year. Vulcan's maiden flight, which ULA calls “Cert-1,” will be followed by a “Cert-2” mission as soon as April to launch Sierra Space's commercial Dream Chaser spaceplane on a resupply mission to the International Space Station.
If these two launches go flawlessly, the Space Force could sign on to launch national security payloads on Vulcan in the second half of this year.
Listing image by Stephen Clark/Ars Technica
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