ULA’s new Vulcan Centaur rocket finally set to fly on overnight launch

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER — A new era for United Launch Alliance is geared to make its much-delayed debut as its new Vulcan Centaur rocket is set to lift off during an overnight launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

The replacement for ULA’s Atlas V and Delta IV rockets that was originally targeting its first launch back in 2021 finally aims to take flight three years later on the Certification-1 mission set for liftoff from Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 41 during a 45-minute window that opens at 2:18 a.m. Monday.

Its main payload is commercial company Astrobotic Technology’s Peregrine lunar lander headed for a potential moon landing in February that could be the first under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

A lot is riding on Astrobotic moon lander set for launch Monday on new Vulcan Centaur

Also flying and attached to the Centaur upper stage and headed for a permanent deep space orbit are the partial remains and DNA of more than 200 people including “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry and actors James “Scotty” Doohan, Nichelle “Lt. Uhura” Nichols and DeForest “Dr. McCoy” Kelly, as part of Celestis Inc.’s Enterprise Flight. Among the DNA are hair samples from presidents George Washington, John F. Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower and Ronald Regan. Once at its final destination, the stage will be Enterprise Station.

The countdown for launch began at 3:58 p.m. Sunday at T-minus 8 hours, 50 minutes, although will feature built-in holds, one 30-minute hold before fueling at T-minus 4 hours, 30 minutes and a second 60-minute hold before Terminal Count at T-minus 7 minutes. Live updates at ulalaunch.com will begin at 8 p.m. while NASA will provide video coverage starting at 1:30 a.m. on nasa.gov.

Space Launch Delta 45’s weather squadron forecasts an 85% chance for good conditions, with chances dropping to 30% chance in the event of a 24-hour delay and 45% if delayed 48 hours.

ULA has three backup opportunities to launch early Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. If it cannot make any of those, the next available launch isn’t until Jan. 23 because of the Peregrine lander’s requirements for where it wants to land on the moon.

“We’ve very rigorously gone through the qualification of Vulcan … that stretched over several years, involved rigorous testing of the component and subsystem and major elements of the rocket as well as testing here at the launch site,” said Mark Peller, ULA’s vice president of Vulcan development during a pre-launch press conference on Friday. “Extensive simulation using the latest tools to do everything we can to fly the rocket in simulation before we actually fly it.”

If it can launch, it could open the door for at least 70 missions for Vulcan already in the books including five more on the manifest for 2024. The second launch would be no earlier than April following at least 60 days of review after Cert-1’s launch. That’s Certification-2 carrying Sierra Space’s new Dream Chaser, an uncrewed cargo spacecraft, for its first mission to the International Space Station. If it can clear both certification flights, it can begin its lineup of planned missions for the Department of Defense.

It has only 17 more Atlas V rockets and one lone Delta IV Heavy left in its stable, all sold to customers.

Nine of the 17 Atlas V’s and the single Delta IV Heavy are also slated to launch in 2024 meaning up to 16 ULA launches could fly this year, a feat the company that was formed in 2006 as a joint effort of Boeing and Lockheed Martin has only accomplished once, back in 2009.

It only managed three flights in 2023 while competitor SpaceX managed 96 orbital missions. To date, though, ULA has flown 158 times with 100% mission success.

SpaceX knocks out Sunday launch before ULA Vulcan’s 1st flight overnight

This would be the Space Coast’s third launch of the year following a pair of SpaceX Falcon 9 missions from neighboring Space Launch Complex 40, including the latest Starlink mission that lifted off on Sunday evening.

SpaceX’s plans call for as many as 144 launches across its Florida and California facilities. Those paired with ULA’s planned launches and possibly NASA’s Space Launch System rocket on the Artemis II mission mean the Space Coast could blow past the record 72 launches it ticked off in 2023.

With so many Vulcan launches planned beyond 2024, though, ULA is constructing a second vertical integration facility at SLC 41 to support up to two launches per month while also utilizing a pad at California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base.

The majority of the new rocket features parts already flight tested on previous Atlas V and Delta IV launches.

“So many of the systems that we’re flying here actually have a fair amount of flight experience under their belts,” Peller said.

The big question mark, though, are the new American-made BE-4 engines from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which have never made it to orbit.

Delays in delivery of the first engines were among several hurdles ULA had to tackle coming to the launch pad. Switching to American-made engines was part of the new U.S. requirements to steer off of Russian-made rocket engines. Blue Origin’s in-the-works New Glenn rocket will also be using the BE-4. The two engines needed for the Certificaiton-2 flight are near completion, though, and will soon be sent to ULA.

“After Blue Origin delivered the engines for this flight vehicle early last year, the real focus of test activity was getting through qualifications, qualify BE-4 for flight,” Peller said. “They’ve switched back now to production engines to support our production activities. … They’re on track.”

Northrop Grumman is also providing a new larger version of its solid rocket boosters. The pair of the two GEM 63XL engines being used on this flight combined with the BE-4’s will provide just over 2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. Future Vulcan flights can use up to six of the engines for a maximum thrust of 3.3 million pounds.

In comparison, a Falcon 9 rocket generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust while Falcon Heavy generates 5.1 million pounds of thrust. Atlas V in its most powerful configuration hits 2.3 million pounds of thrust while the Delta IV Heavy generates 2.1 million pounds. NASA’s SLS manages 8.8 million pounds of thrust while SpaceX’s new Starship and Super Heavy produces around 17 million pounds of thrust.

“Vulcan does provide extremely good value and is very competitive in the marketplace,” Peller said. “What’s unique about Vulcan and what we originally set out to do was to provide a rocket that had all the capabilities of Atlas and Delta in one single system and we achieved that — actually a vehicle that has performance that’s even greater than the three-body Delta IV Heavy.”

Peller said the system can hit all of the targets that its commercial, civil and national security space customers demand including low-Earth orbit, geostationary orbit and interplanetary, such as the Cert-1 flight.

“We’ve been able to achieve as a vehicle that goes from medium to heavy lift in a single core configuration,” he said. “We do that by the flexibility to add solid rocket boosters so that provides heavy lift capability with the single core rocket and providing extreme value for our customers … so a very flexible rocket that is very competitive in the marketplace.”

ULA outlines path for retargeted 1st launch of Vulcan Centaur

Despite delays in engine delivery as well as the pandemic that saw the original 2021 target keep slipping, all seemed well for a launch attempt back in May 2023, but an incident in March at a test facility at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, forced an even longer wait. That incident left both a test version of the Centaur upper stage and the test stand it was on damaged when a hydrogen leak caused a massive fireball.

Figuring out why that leak happened and implementing a fix meant switching out the Centaur stage that was already awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral. With all the new parts in place, ULA then had targeted a Christmas Eve launch, but delayed that as well after issues completing a full wet dress rehearsal in early December.

“This is still the first time the vehicle has flown and we will watch this very carefully and see what we learn from this,” Peller said. “We’re going into this with very high confidence. If there is any observations with the first fight, we’re prepared to respond and address those, and turn around quickly to fly again.”

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