United Launch Alliance is nearing the maiden flight of its Vulcan rocket, still on track to fly the vehicle for the first time on December 24.
During a media roundtable on Wednesday afternoon, United Launch Alliance CEO Torey Bruno said “the path to maiden flight is clear” for Vulcan. The last major piece of the rocket’s hardware, the Centaur V upper stage, arrived at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Monday, and all necessary qualification tests for the first flight, including the upper stage, have been completed.
In the coming days, Bruno said Centaur’s upper stage will be combined with Vulcan’s first stage. The combined vehicle will then be transported to the launch site for a refueling test known as a “wet dress rehearsal” in December. However, the rocket’s main engines, BE-4s provided by Blue Origin, will not be fired. This is because the first phase has already completed this hot fire test successfully in June.
Bruno said United Launch Alliance, or ULA, has some margin in its schedule as it works to launch at 1:49 a.m. ET on Christmas Eve. If the weather is bad, the company also has launch opportunities on December 25 and 26 before the launch window closes this year. The Certification 1 mission will have another launch opportunity during the first half of January.
The Certification 1 mission will carry, as its primary payload, a lunar lander built by Astrobotic, which will attempt to make a soft landing on the Moon early next year.
Waiting for Vulcan
Vulcan has been a long time coming. ULA has been developing the missile for more than a decade as it sought to build a heavy missile to replace its fleet of Atlas and Delta missiles. The change was driven by two main needs. First, the company needed a rocket that was more cost-competitive with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters. Second, the US Congress mandated that ULA end its reliance on the Russian-made engines that power the Atlas V rocket.
The large rocket was originally scheduled to launch in 2020 but was pushed back due to several issues, including a lengthy development process for the BE-4 rocket engine as well as a serious accident with the Centaur V upper stage in March of this year.
As delays mounted, ULA faced increasing pressure from the U.S. Space Force to start flying the Vulcan, which is scheduled to fly about two dozen national security missions in the next five years. But before it can do that, Vulcan must complete two certification flights and submit data to the military. The first of these missions is an Astrobotic mission, and the second mission will launch Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spacecraft. During Wednesday’s conference call, Bruno declined to specify a specific goal for that trip, noting only that it would likely take place during the first half of next year.
Go for a lot of missions
ULA has sold 70 Vulcan rockets, a number made up of about half military missions and half commercial flights, Bruno said. The main customer for commercial launches is Amazon, which is looking to begin placing Project Kuiper’s broadband Internet satellites into low Earth orbit.
As a result, ULA is seeking to ramp up production of the Vulcan rocket to reach a cadence of two launches per month by the end of 2025. This sounds rather ambitious and may be asking a lot of suppliers, including engine manufacturer Blue Origin. However, Bruno said the administrative challenges facing this expansion are being worked out.
“We expect Blue to keep up with us, and we are working very hard to achieve that,” he said. “So far, so good.”
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