TITUSVILLE, Fla.— After a decade of development, United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur rocket is finally on the launch pad for its inaugural launch, carrying not just a lunar lander but also the company’s future.
ULA rolled out its first Vulcan rocket to the pad at Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Jan. 5, ahead of a launch scheduled for 2:18 a.m. Eastern Jan. 8. The rocket’s primary payload is Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander.
In briefings after the rollout, ULA executives said they were not working any technical issues with the rocket ahead of its launch. There is a 45-minute launch window for the Jan. 8 attempt, with forecasts projecting an 85% chance of acceptable weather. There are additional launch opportunities Jan. 9 to 11, but with launch windows less than 10 minutes long each day and with less favorable weather in the forecast.
The mission, designated Cert-1 by ULA, is Vulcan’s first launch and the first of two certification flights the company needs to perform to be approved by the U.S. Space Force to launch national security payloads. “This certification flight is the final step in development of Vulcan Centaur,” said Mark Peller, vice president of Vulcan development at ULA.
The rocket’s Centaur upper stage will perform two burns before releasing Peregrine into a highly elliptical orbit about 50 minutes after liftoff. ULA will then perform additional tests of Centaur, including a third burn of its RL10 engines, over the next three and a half hours.
“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. That includes a simulation of a long-duration mission, like those required for launches that send payloads directly to geostationary orbit. “This demonstration will capture thermal data. It will enable us to anchor our models for extended-duration coast.”
If Cert-1 is successful, he said the company could be ready for the second certification launch, Cert-2, as soon as April. That schedule will depend on the readiness of its payload, Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, as well as when the International Space Station would be able to support the arrival of that vehicle.
Peller said the two BE-4 engines for that second launch are complete and are at a Blue Origin test site in West Texas for acceptance testing. The booster and Centaur upper stage are in final assembly at ULA’s Decatur, Alabama, factory. “That’s all coming together to support delivery down here at the launch site and align with that timeline,” he said.
ULA has six Vulcan launches on its manifest this year, with the other four being national security missions, Wentz said. He added that will depend on the readiness of those payloads. “We anticipate some movement in the manifest, but right now as a baseline there’s six Vulcans contractually on the manifest.”
The upcoming launch is the culmination of a decade of development of Vulcan, intended to replace both ULA’s Atlas and Delta launch vehicles. The company has a backlog of more than 70 Vulcan launches, primarily national security missions and a large order from Amazon for launching part of its Project Kuiper broadband constellation.
That transition to Vulcan — years behind original schedules — is critical for ULA. “It’s the future of our company,” Peller said. “Vulcan does provide extremely good value and is very competitive in the marketplace.”
He argued that the flexibility of Vulcan, which can accommodate payloads even larger than what Delta 4 Heavy could launch, offers “extreme value” for customers. “Vulcan is designed to support a full range of missions across all the markets we serve: commercial, civil and national security space.”
First launches of new rockets, though, are inherently risky. ULA played down those risks, pointing to the heritage from Atlas and Delta in most major components of Vulcan. Peller said many of the systems developed for Vulcan were integrated into Atlas and Delta rockets launched in the last several years. “Many of the systems that we’re flying here actually have a fair amount of flight experience under their belts,” he said. “We’ve had a very rigorous qualification program.”
“We’re going into this with very high confidence,” he said. If there are any issues, “we’re prepared to respond and address those and turn around quickly to fly again.”
If there is a failure, Wentz said ULA will work to find the cause “and press forward to fix it and get back to flight as soon as possible.” He shared Peller’s confidence. “We’re at a point now where we need to fly.”
The customer for Cert-1 was also optimistic about the launch. “We do feel confident with ULA. They’ve been great partners,” said John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, in a Jan. 5 interview. “I think they’re going to do very well on this mission.”