Updated 6:15 a.m. Eastern with post-launch comments.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur soared into night skies on its long-awaited first launch Jan. 8, carrying a commercial lunar lander.
The Vulcan Centaur lifted off from Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 at 2:18 a.m. Eastern on a mission designated Cert-1 by ULA. The primary payload of the Cert-1 mission, Peregrine, was deployed from the Centaur upper stage 50 minutes later after two burns of the Centaur upper stage. A second payload, from space memorial company Celestis, remained attached to the Centaur as planned.
Peregrine is a lunar lander developed by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic. The Centaur placed Peregrine on a highly elliptical orbit that will take it to the moon, where it will go into orbit in advance of a landing attempt Feb. 23.
“Peregrine powered on, acquired a signal with Earth and is now moving through space on its way to the moon,” John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said in a statement after the launch.
Peregrine is carrying 20 payloads, including five from NASA as part of the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA is paying $108 million for the payload delivery. Other customers include national space agencies, companies and organizations flying payloads ranging from miniature rovers to commemorative items.
Peregrine is Astrobotic’s first lunar lander after 16 years of work. “It’s just a massive mix of emotions,” said Thornton in a Jan. 5 interview. “We’ve overcome so many reasons that we shouldn’t be here.”
Once Peregrine is powered up and checked out after separation, the next major milestone is a series of trajectory correction maneuvers a few days after launch. Peregrine will later go into lunar orbit, gradually lowering that orbit to prepare for the landing near Gruitheisen Domes on the near side of the moon.
Thornton acknowledged the mixed track record of lunar landers, with a historic success rate of less than 50%. “We know we’re headed into a gauntlet here. We know we’re headed into very difficult territory,” he said. “At the end of the day, we need to get as much data as we can at every point through the mission so we can learn and get better as an industry.”
When NASA started the CLPS program in 2018, it adopted a “shots on goal” philosophy, recognizing that not all missions would be successful. “We know going into this that it’s a really difficult thing to do,” said Joel Kearns, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration in the Science Mission Directorate, in a Jan. 5 interview.
He said NASA remained committed to that approach and did not expect any kind of retrenchment if the initial missions fail. “The companies, we believe, are in it for the long haul. We think it’s the best path to get U.S. industry to do this as a service.”
After releasing Peregrine, ULA planned to conduct a series of tests of the Centaur upper stage, including a third firing of its RL10 engines. Those tests will demonstrate how the stage performs on extended-duration missions, that those that deliver payloads directly to geostationary orbit.
“We’ll use this opportunity of this flight test to validate a lot of our future mission objectives,” said Gary Wentz, vice president of government and commercial programs at ULA, at a Jan. 5 briefing.
The launch was the first of two flights for Vulcan Centaur required for certification by the U.S. Space Force for national security payloads. The second, carrying the first Dream Chaser spaceplane from Sierra Space, is scheduled for as soon as April.
“On the first flight of the system we’ll have observations and we will learn from those observations,” said Mark Peller, vice president of Vulcan development at ULA. “We need to get through two flights and we will evaluate the data. We expect that will put is on a path to complete our National Security Space Launch certification.”
ULA has been developing Vulcan for a decade as a replacement for its existing Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets. The first launch slipped by several years, in large part because of development delays in the BE-4 engines from Blue Origin used in its first stage.
While Vulcan is a new rocket, ULA stressed that many of its components have been flown on Atlas and Delta rockets. “As we brought Vulcan on board and designed the systems, we leveraged the existing systems as much as possible,” said Wentz. “The only hardware that hasn’t flown prior to this flight is the BE-4 engine. All the others, or variants thereto, have flown on either Atlas or Delta.”
The company has a backlog of more than 70 Vulcan launches, including a National Security Space Launch Phase 2 contract and 38 launches from Amazon to deploy part of its Project Kuiper broadband constellation. All of the company’s remaining Atlas and Delta vehicles have been assigned to various customers. “It’s the future of our company,” said Peller.
“Vulcan’s inaugural launch ushers in a new, innovative capability to meet the ever-growing requirements of space launch,” said Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, in a statement after the launch.
On NASA TV shortly after payload separation, Bruno was asked how he was feeling. “Yeehaw!” he responded. “I am so thrilled, I can’t tell you how much.”