Vulcan Centaur on schedule for first launch in 2022 as New Glenn slips

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WASHINGTON — United Launch Alliance remains confident that its Vulcan Centaur rocket will make its first launch this year while Blue Origin is pushing back the first flight of its New Glenn vehicle.

During a panel at the Satellite 2022 conference March 22, Tory Bruno, chief executive of ULA, said that he expected the first launch of the Vulcan “later this year,” but did not offer a more specific schedule.

That schedule is driven by the completion of testing of the BE-4 engine that powers the first stage of Vulcan and delivery of the first flight units from Blue Origin. “The engine is in great shape,” Bruno said. “It is performing better than I anticipated.”

Bruno said he expected to receive the first two flight models of the BE-4 in the middle of the year, “which supports me flying before the end of the year.” He added that testing of the engine is also going well, including firing of the engine three times a week “on a sustained basis” at a Blue Origin test site.

Bruno described the ongoing testing of the BE-4 as “pre-qual” testing. “We like to pathfind, so pre-qual does all of that and then more, so that we’re sure it’s going to go smooth” when the formal qualification tests begin. “Pre-qual has been going great.”

“We’re very pleased with where the BE-4 is and we expect to fly this year as a result,” he said.

Jarrett Jones, senior vice president of New Glenn at Blue Origin, said the company had recorded more than 18,000 seconds, or five hours, of BE-4 firings. “We’ve proven it out. We’ve done the gimbaling test for ULA,” he said. “We’re right where we need to be.”

Bruno also firmly closed the door on any consideration of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s AR1 engine for Vulcan. Doing so would require major changes to the design of Vulcan, as AR1 uses kerosene fuel rather than methane.

“You design your stage and your engine together as a pair. Vulcan is done being designed and it’s being built,” he said. “The BE-4 is nearly complete. It’s running beautifully. I have no interest in changing my partner at this point.”

While Vulcan remains publicly on schedule for a first launch in 2022, Jones ruled out any chance that New Glenn will launch before the end of the year, a schedule that the company had previously cast doubt on. “The runway is closing on 2022,” Jones said.

He said the company is in the process of setting a new date for the first launch and discussing that with customers, but said it was premature to announce it. “It will not be at the end of this year,” he acknowledged.

Blue Origin has completed design reviews and is now in qualification tests of New Glenn, including the booster, forward structure and payload fairing. The fairing is being tested at NASA’s Armstrong Test Facility in Ohio, formerly known as Plum Brook Station. “Basically, we are well into qualification of our vehicle, both the upper and the booster stages,” Jones said.

Blue Origin has to balance New Glenn development with completion of the BE-4, which will be used by both New Glenn and Vulcan. “It’s fair to say you’re focusing on your most important customer, delivering BE-4s so I can fly this year,” quipped Bruno.