First Vulcan Centaur lifts off with ULA’s future in sight

Lofting lunar probe marks first step toward eligibility for national security launches

UPDATES: Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander was released from the Centaur upper stage at 3:09 a.m. Eastern time for a landing attempt targeted for next month. Astrobotic provides mission updates on its website. 

Also, the original of this article omitted a reference to Elysium Space, one of two space memorial companies with capsules on Peregrine.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A Vulcan Centaur rocket lifted off from Pad 41 here at 2:18 Eastern time this morning, carrying a commercially developed lunar lander in the launcher design’s debut.

If all goes as planned, the launch will mark the first step in United Launch Alliance’s plan to earn eligibility to launch U.S. spy satellites and military spacecraft with Vulcans, as it has with its Atlas Vs and Delta IVs. The Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture has one more Delta to launch and all remaining Atlases are committed to customers, leaving it up to the long-delayed Vulcan expendable rockets to compete for national security launches.

“It is the future of our company,” said ULA’s Mark Peller, the vice president in charge of Vulcan development, in a pre-launch briefing.

On the way to space this time is not a multibillion-dollar government satellite but Peregrine, an SUV-sized lunar lander built by the small company Astrobotic of Pittsburgh. On Feb. 23, Peregrine could become the first U.S. spacecraft to land on the moon since 1972 and the first commercially built spacecraft to do so. The Beresheet lander from SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries crashed in 2019, and last year the Hakuto-R Mission 1 lander from Tokyo’s ispace crashed, said Matt Shindell, who curates planetary science and exploration history at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a really big challenge, and we recognize that with eyes wide open,” said Astrobotic CEO John Thornton.

His company has a $108 million Commercial Lunar Payload Services contract with NASA to deliver five scientific payloads to the surface aboard Peregrine ahead of astronauts under the Artemis program. Also aboard are a variety of payloads from six other nations and capsules with human remains in them from the space memorial companies Celestis and Elysium Space. Some will be sent into orbit around the sun while others are to be carried to the surface by Peregrine. That last aspect of the mission reportedly prompted the Navajo Nation, which views the moon as sacred, to ask the Biden administration to halt the launch plans.

Planning nevertheless continued, and this morning the rocket’s core rose over the launch pad powered by two BE-4 engines made by Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin company, marking the engine design’s debut. The ULA webcast reported that the Centaur upper stage, powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engines, separated from the core as planned at 2:24 a.m. and that the two halves of its payload fairing opened and fell away, setting up the biggest moment of the launch at 3:09 a.m. — release of Peregrine on a trajectory toward the moon. The Centaur is to continue on, carrying a second batch of Celestis capsules “to orbit the sun forever,” as ULA puts it in a YouTube video.

If all that goes as planned, ULA will have completed Cert-1, the first of two launches the company must complete with the Vulcan to prove the design’s safety to the U.S. Space Force, which arranges rides on rockets for the National Reconnaissance Office spy agency and the military services under the National Security Space Launch program. In Cert-2, a Vulcan Centaur with an extended fairing is due to send the inaugural Sierra Space Dream Chaser cargo spaceplane to the International Space Station, where it will be grappled by the station’s robotic Canadarm2. That mission is planned for “April-ish,” said Gary Wentz, ULA’s vice president for government and commercial programs, in the pre-launch briefing.

ULA says the Vulcan design stands out from competitors in the heavy-lift sector because the rocket has a single core whose thrust will be supplemented by up to six solid rocket boosters. There were two boosters on this morning’s launch. “Unlike Delta IV, Titan IV or some of our competitors, where they have to use multibody or three-body configuration vehicles for heavy lift, Vulcan can do that all with a single core,” Peller said, referring in part to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rockets that have three side-by-side cores.

Unlike the Falcon Heavy rockets, whose cores are recovered and reflown, each Vulcan will be entirely expendable, for the time being. ULA has ambitions to someday recover the BE-4 engines by inflating a disc-shaped apparatus — a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator — around the aft end of the core stage to protect the two engines and other components as they plunge back into the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds for a landing in the ocean under parachutes.

“We’re a few years from being able to do a flight experiment,” Peller said.

A mission of firsts

  • First launch of a Vulcan Centaur rocket
  • First launch of Blue Origin’s BE-4 engines
  • First U.S. attempt to land on the moon since 1972
  • First launch of a NASA-funded Commercial Lunar Payload Services spacecraft
  • Attempting to land the first commercially developed spacecraft on the moon

First Vulcan Centaur lifts off with ULA’s future in sight