WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering allowing United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch a mass simulator on its next Vulcan Centaur rocket flight if its planned payload, Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser, is not ready by year’s end, according to a defense official.

The official said in off-the-record comments that DoD would consider certifying the Vulcan rocket if it can perform a second successful launch using a mass simulator — a stand-in for the actual payload. 

While Vulcan successfully completed its maiden launch in January, a second successful mission is required for Defense Department certification to fly national security missions. 

ULA maintains confidence that it will launch Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane by October but there are concerns at high levels about ULA’s ability to get the Vulcan rocket certified and flying at the rate needed to meet its contractual obligations, the official said.

Vulcan has yet to be certified nearly four years after ULA secured a multi-billion dollar contract from the U.S. Space Force to launch 60% of national security space missions. 

ULA spokesperson Jessica Rye said in a statement to SpaceNews that the goal remains to launch Dream Chaser to the International Space Station this fall. 

“While ULA will be ready to fly in mid-2024 our customer Sierra Space has requested a launch period in the beginning of September,” said Rye. “It is important for us to fly our Cert-2 mission soon since that is part of our certification program with the Space Force to fly its missions. We expect to fly Cert-2 before October 1. If our customer is not ready to fly, we have backup plans.”

Calvelli calls for a review

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s worries are escalating. The Washington Post on Monday reported that Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition Frank Calvelli directly communicated with ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, asking them to evaluate ULA’s operations and ability to meet National Security Space Launch contract obligations — a backlog of 25 missions that need to be launched by 2027.

In 2020, the Space Force awarded ULA one of two National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contracts, with ULA winning 60% of its missions over five years, and SpaceX receiving the remaining 40%. Development setbacks with Vulcan forced the Space Force to adjust launch assignments, resulting in a current split of 54% for ULA and 46% for SpaceX.

Over the past three years, both Assistant Secretary Calvelli and Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall have held a series of meetings with ULA representatives in an effort to understand the potential delays and their impact on the national security space launch schedule.

The concern is that critical missions could be grounded for extended periods. Vulcan is a program the Air Force is deeply invested in after selecting it for the NSSL Phase 2 contract.  Further, Vulcan serves a strategic purpose by replacing ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket in the national security launch fleet. This transition is mandated by a 2016 law that prohibits the U.S. military from using launch vehicles reliant on the Russian-made RD-180 engine. Vulcan’s first stage is powered by American-made BE-4 engines from Blue Origin.

Ensuring competition ‘a difficult issue’

With these factors in mind, the Air Force is understandably eager for Vulcan to achieve certification and operational capability, said defense analyst Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

In a report published last week, Harrison noted that ensuring competition in the National Security Space Launch program is “perhaps the most difficult space launch issue facing the United States in the coming years.”

SpaceX in 2023 accounted for 93 percent of all U.S. launches and 45 percent of global launches, Harrison estimated. “SpaceX is poised to pull further ahead in the launch market once Starship becomes operational, unless and until a cost-competitive challenger emerges,” he added. 

Adding another layer of complexity is ULA’s potential acquisition by Blue Origin, a competitor in the space launch industry.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...