COLORADO SPRINGS — The head of the U.S. Space Force launch program office, Maj. Gen. Stephen Purdy, said he has been briefed by United Launch Alliance on an anomaly experienced last month during testing of the Centaur upper stage of ULA’s new rocket Vulcan Centaur. But he said it’s too early to predict what long-term impacts further delays of Vulcan’s debut launch might have on the national security launch program.    

“Yes, we’re tracking the ULA Centaur upper stage issue. It’s still under investigation. Obviously we’re closely following that,” Purdy told reporters April 18 at the Space Symposium.

Purdy is the commander of Space Launch Delta 45 at Cape Canaveral, Florida, and program executive officer for assured access to space.

Before the March 29 incident, first reported by Ars Technica, ULA had announced a May 4 target date for Vulcan’s first launch, known as Cert-1.

Perhaps a June or July launch

ULA’s CEO Tory Bruno in a Twitter post April 14 said it now looks like Vulcan will not be ready until at least June or July. Vulcan needs to complete two orbital missions successfully in order to get certified to launch U.S. military and intelligence satellites under the National Security Space Launch program.  

“Our hope is that we can find the way to continue to pursue the Cert-1 launch, which would be great,” Purdy said. “And then it just becomes a more of a long term fleet kind of a discussion. That’s our hope. The data will drive us into that decision or not.”

Bruno in a Twitter post April 13 showed a video of a fireball igniting during tests of a structural article of the Centaur upper stage of its Vulcan rocket at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

A leak caused hydrogen to accumulate inside the test rig, Bruno wrote. “H2 accumulated inside the rig. Found an ignition source. Burned fast. Over pressure caved in our forward dome and damaged the rig.”

On March 29 he said a hardware anomaly occurred during qualification testing of a Centaur 5 structural article. “This is why we thoroughly & rigorously exercise every possible condition on the ground before flight. Investigation is underway. Vulcan will fly when complete,” Bruno wrote.

He said the company has not yet determined if the problem was the test article or the ground system. 

Vulcan already is years behind schedule due to delays in the development and testing of the Blue Origin BE-4 engine that powers the vehicle’s first stage. 

Vulcan needed to launch national security missions

The Space Force was expecting Vulcan to launch its first national security mission in late 2023 but that now appears unlikely. The vehicle was selected in 2020 to launch 60% of national security missions over five years. SpaceX won the other 40%.

Randy Kendall, vice president of launch and architecture operations at the Aerospace Corp., told SpaceNews that depending on the outcome of the investigation, the Space Force would chart several paths to deal with the potential delays.

Aerospace is a nonprofit that provides technical advice to the U.S. government, as well as engineering and support services for the national security space launch program.

Kendall said he could not comment on the specifics of the Centaur anomaly. 

“The good news is that BE-4 testing and qualification has come along really well,” he said. “I don’t anticipate they’re going to have any challenges getting off the launch pad this year.”

Under the terms of the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract won by ULA and SpaceX, Kendall said, if one of the providers is unable to perform a mission, the Space Force could choose to delay the mission or ask the other provider to step in. 

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...