ULA, Air Force agree on Vulcan rocket certification process

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WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance and the U.S. Air Force signed an agreement Sept. 27 that will guide the military’s certification of the Vulcan rocket ULA is developing as the successor to its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 launchers.

The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center said in a statement that it intends to sign similar Cooperative Research and Development Agreements soon with SpaceX for certification of the Hawthorne, California, company’s Falcon Heavy and Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital ATK for certification of their proposed Next Generation Launcher.

ULA Vulcan
ULA Vulcan

Currently, only ULA’s Atlas 5 and Delta 4 and SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets are certified by the Air Force for launching U.S. national security payloads. NASA has its own internal process for deciding which rockets are qualified to launch U.S. science satellites.

As part of the certification process for so-called new entrants, officials at Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center will evaluate ULA’s overall flight history, vehicle design, reliability, process maturity, safety systems, manufacturing and operations, systems engineering, risk management and launch facilities and monitor at least two Vulcan flights.

“The certification process provides a path for launch-service providers to demonstrate the capability to design, produce, qualify, and deliver a new launch system and provide the mission assurance support required to deliver [national security space] satellites to orbit,” said the Space and Missile Systems Center’s outgoing commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, who was nominated by President Obama earlier this month to lead the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.  “This process ensures that we continue to have assured access to space.”

ULA, a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture based in Denver, is funding development of the semi-reusable Vulcan rocket with a mix of corporate and Air Force funding. ULA is partnering with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin on development of the liquid-methane-fueled BE-4 engines that would power the Vulcan’s first stage, although ULA CEO Tory Bruno said earlier this month that a formal decision on building Vulcan around BE-4 has been pushed back until next spring.

The other main-engine candidate in the running for Vulcan is the AR1 engine under development at Aerojet Rocketdyne. The Air Force agreed in February to invest more than $500 million in the kerosene-fueled engine, which NASA is also eyeing for the Advanced Boosters being considered as an upgrade for NASA’s still-in-development Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.