Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines for ULA’s Vulcan launch vehicle sit at the build stand. Credit: @ToryBruno

WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force acquisition executive Frank Calvelli this week will visit United Launch Alliance’s factory in Decatur, Alabama, and get an update on the company’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket, a vehicle that the U.S. military has invested in and expects to use to launch national security satellites.

Calvelli, who has been on the job for less than two months, told reporters at the Pentagon June 28 that he is aware of the delays in the development of Vulcan’s main engine, Blue Origin’s BE-4, and that is why he decided to put ULA and Blue Origin on this travel schedule sooner rather than later. 

“One of the first industry visits I want to make is down there to make sure they understand the importance of hitting their milestones with that engine delivery as well as with the launch,” Calvelli said. 

Vulcan is years behind schedule due to delays in the development and testing of the BE-4 engine that powers the vehicle’s first stage. ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno has said the two flight engines needed for Vulcan’s first flight will be delivered this summer and Vulcan should be ready to fly before the end of the year.

Calvelli said he expects Vulcan’s first launch in December. “That’s what I’ve been told.”

ULA needs to start flying Vulcan and complete two commercial orbital missions successfully in order to get certified to launch U.S. military and intelligence satellites under the National Security Space Launch program. ULA is under contract, along with SpaceX, to launch as many as 35 missions over the next five years.

Having Vulcan certified as soon as possible is critical for the Defense Department. ULA currently launches NSSL missions with its workhorse Atlas 5 rocket but DoD cannot buy any Atlas 5 launches beyond 2022 due to a congressional ban on the use of Russian rocket engines. The Atlas 5 uses the Russian-built RD-180s engines. ULA said it has sold all its remaining Atlas 5’s and just won a big contract from Amazon to launch the Kuiper broadband constellation so it’s imperative for the company to start transitioning to Vulcan and fly a domestically produced engine.

Calvelli said he will be briefed on the status of Vulcan during his planned visit June 30. “I’ve never gotten a good deep dive on just what Vulcan is all about and what the BE-4 is all about,” he said. “I’m going down there as one of my first industry visits to make sure they know it’s really critical that they launch this year in December like they committed to, that they get those engines delivered,” he added. “So I’m going there as education to learn, and to make sure that both Blue Origin and ULA  know how critical this is.”

At this point Calvelli said he has no specific concerns about the program but believes it’s important enough to merit a visit. “I just want them to recognize that there’s somebody new in town, and that this is really important to me.”

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...